Casey Mize showed us something significant in his Detroit Tigers debut

Detroit Free Press

Casey Mize looked disappointed.

After making a tremendous debut for the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night, this 23-year-old rookie looked frustrated after he was pulled from the game — and that might be the thing to love about him the most.

Mize didn’t hold a lead and that irked him. He didn’t get the win and that ate him up.

He wanted to get through six innings, and he hated that he didn’t. He wants to be great, wants to be dominant. His goal is so much bigger than just arriving in the major leagues. And you have to his mentality and competitive nature. His talent and potential are tremendous, but his mental toughness is what takes him over the top

“He doesn’t really realize how well he threw the baseball, so he’ll figure that out as we talk to him,” said Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, after the Chicago White Sox pulled away with a 5-3 win, giving the Tigers their eighth straight loss. “It was fun watching him pitch. The guy can really pitch. The first three or four innings were really good.”

It was a debut filled with encouraging signs. Mize pitched 4 1/3 innings, allowing seven hits and three runs. He was composed and confident. The ball seemed to start dancing as soon as it left his hand — breaking and moving and darting and dipping at the plate, causing seven strikeouts with no walks.

Most impressively, this was against White Sox team that had scored 24 runs in their last three games. They came into this game on fire. But for the first four innings, Mize threw a bucket of water on them.

“I wish I could have done more for my team,” Mize said. “So definitely frustrated, frustrated with that … but you know, really happy to be where I am.”

Ah, finally, an acknowledgment about his performance.

By the time he did a postgame interview, after hearing encouraging words from his coaches and teammates, Mize seemed to realize how he pitched.

“I’m not gonna lie to you,” he said. “I had a blast out there. That’s the most fun I’ve had playing baseball ever.”

Which is cool.

Because it was a blast to watch him.

‘Really tough mindset’

You had to wonder how Mize would handle the pressure. He had never pitched above Double-A and he has spent several weeks training in Toledo, playing intrasquad games.

Before throwing his first pitch, he was hard to read. He walked around the mound. Took off his glove. Rubbed the ball. Stretched. Took a deep breath. Took another deep breath. Raised both hands over his head.  Stretched again. Looked in and got the sign.

Then, he threw a comfortable, 94 mph fastball, while facing Tim Anderson. A ball. Anderson came into the game on a tear — he had hit three leadoff home runs against the Tigers this summer.

On the next pitch, Mize got Anderson to fly out, which felt like an accomplishment on its own.

“He’s pretty polished pitcher,” Gardenhire said. “And he handles himself really well. He’s got a really tough mindset.”

Then he struck out Yoan Moncada, a switch-hitting third baseman, with a cutter that disappeared in the dirt. Mize backed off the mound like it was just another day at the office. He adjusted his hair like he was getting ready for a school picture.

After giving up a hit to Jose Abreu, he struck out Eloy Jimenez with a slider. And just like that, after his first inning in the major leagues, Mize had already recorded two strikeouts.

He walked off the mound matter-of-factly, like it was nothing.

Settle in, keep rockin’

As Mize sat in the dugout, wiping sweat with a towel, his father, Jason Mize appeared on the Fox Sports Detroit broadcast.

 “I think I blacked out like three times,” Jason said and laughed.

“You got a great kid, not just a great pitcher,” Hall of Famer Jack Morris said.

“Thank you,” Jason Mize said.

As a child, Casey always talked about getting to the major leagues. Not if. But when. The family took him all around the country in a small SUV, playing travel ball, preparing for this moment.

“You’ve been through some big moments,” Morris said. “You watched his college career. You’ve seen this kid excel all the time. What do you expect in tonight’s game?”

“I expect him to have a good game, really,” Jason Mize said. “I don’t have unreasonable expectations, but I think he will get through six innings. I’m hoping that’s what will happen.”

As he talked, Casey sat calmly in the dugout.

Nothing seemed to rattle him.

If Casey gets his athleticism from his mother, Rhonda, he gets his cool demeanor from his father, who supervises the drug unit for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama.

“The first inning is normally his rough inning,” Jason Mize said. “He got through that pretty good. I’m hoping he can settle on in now and keep rockin’ on through.”

Quick start

Through three innings, Mize had five strikeouts on just 39 pitches.

Through four innings, he allowed just one run and threw 56 pitches.

It couldn’t have been a better start

OK, maybe a little better. He did give up a home run to Edwin Encarnacion in the second inning.

So be it.

It didn’t seem to phase him. He looked composed and confident. Even when he got into trouble in the fifth.

And, yes, that irks him.

“We thought that he was running out of gas there at the end,” Gardenhire said. “And that’s just the adrenaline you know, from a major league start, your first start, you’ve been waiting for this your whole life.”

Rebuild comes full circle

This has been a week of debuts for the Tigers.

Isaac Paredes looks like he belongs in the big leagues, just by the way he carries himself, even though he has just a .111 average.

And Tarik Skubal had a rough debut, lasting just two innings Tuesday and giving up seven hits and four earned runs. But he threw enough impressive pitches that it is clear that he has a big league arm.

All of that youth seemed to come together in one moment on Wednesday night, offering an interesting perspective.

In the top of the fifth inning, the Tigers took the lead when Jeimer Candelario crushed a three-run home run, driving in JaCoby Jones and Parades, who was playing in just his third game.

“Let’s go!” Candelario screamed, running the bases.

Somehow, it seemed fitting and poetic, tying the strands of this rebuild into a perfect bow.

On July 31, 2017, Candelario and Paredes were traded to the Tigers for pitcher Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila.  A month later, the Tigers traded Justin Verlander — the face of the franchise. The Tigers went 6-24 after those trades, which gave them something special — the first overall pick.

They took Mize.

Tigers fans have been waiting for Mize ever since. As Mize soared through the Tigers’ minor league system, expectations grew to incredible levels.  But somehow on Wednesday night, Mize lived up to most of them. He proved he’s the real deal.

Will there be ups and downs? Of course. But this night was tantalizing and offered a reason for hope.

All of those trades, all of that losing has given the Tigers this fascinating pitcher.

If I had to bet right now, he’s going to be the face of this franchise for a long time.

Not just because of his stuff. But how much he hates to lose.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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