Wojo: Tigers’ Casey Mize stirs up promising reasons to believe he belongs

Detroit News

Detroit – The Tigers have been waiting a long time. Detroit sports fans have been waiting a long time. And yes, even Casey Mize had to wait a little longer than he preferred.

Everyone was ready for the Big First Step, for a reason to believe better times are ahead. And Mize offered promising signs he’s ready to provide it, with one of the most-anticipated debuts in recent Tigers history.

The 23-year-old rookie was overpowering at times, and also overpowered at times by a white-hot White Sox lineup. He departed in the fifth inning of a 3-3 game, posting the same number of strikeouts (seven) as hits allowed (seven). It didn’t change the Tigers’ immediate fortunes, as they lost their eighth straight 5-3 Wednesday night and fell to 9-13. But scuffling in a pandemic-shortened season, the Tigers needed someone from the future to drop by and say hello.

And here was Mize, one day after another touted pitching prospect, Tarik Skubal, made a rocky debut. Mize fared much better; his composure was impressive and his celebrated split-fingered pitch was nasty. He was good enough to give the Tigers a chance, something they rarely get from their starting rotation. He was good enough to get people excited, although his competitiveness wouldn’t allow him to fully share in the excitement.

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Word to the Mize: Anything learned this season will help when the games matter more in 2021 and beyond.

“I’m not gonna lie to you, I had a blast out there,” Mize said. “That’s the most fun I’ve had playing baseball ever. I was glad I was able to stay calm, stay focused. I wish I could’ve done more for my team. I’m definitely frustrated with that, but really happy to be where I am.”

And then, an appropriate splash of confidence from Mize: “I do feel like I belong.”

No argument here. Mize’s appearance capped a three-day stretch that felt like a 2021 preview, as the Tigers called up three top prospects, including infielder Isaac Paredes. GM Al Avila had resisted the promotions because he wanted all three to get a little experience playing intra-squad games in Toledo. But in the absence of a minor-league season, and with the Tigers’ rotation decimated by injury and ineffectiveness, it made no sense to wait any longer.

Before the game, pitching coach Rick Anderson explained the approach.

“Now’s the time, let’s see what we got,” he said. “For me, it’s the perfect type of season to do it, no fans in the stands. My message (to Mize) was, it’s still a game, have a good ol’ time up here, don’t change a thing.”

On the mound, Mize doesn’t appear overly interested in a good ol’ time. His demeanor rarely changes, and after being pulled in the fifth inning, he sat stone-faced in the dugout as Anderson and others came over to encourage him.

For the first four innings, Mize was exceptionally strong. Then the splitter stopped working and his outing was over, and he needed to keep it in perspective.

“He was facing a really hot team and he handled them pretty doggone good,” Ron Gardenhire said. “It looked like he ran out of gas a little bit. … For his first outing in the big leagues against a team like that, he doesn’t really realize how well he threw the baseball. That’s one of the things that’s special about him. He’s not satisfied. Ever. If he gives up one run, he’s not satisfied. That’s what’s made him such a good pitcher, and we’re lucky we’re gonna get to see him for a while now.”

This is not a one-shot audition, as Avila made it clear he’d stay in the majors as long as he was effective. It’s what you’d expect from a guy taken No. 1 overall in 2018, after dominating at Auburn. In Mize’s first start for the Tigers’ Double-A team in Erie last season, he threw a no-hitter. The plan was to start him in Toledo this season and continue the progression as the summer unfolded.

The pandemic changed all that. Then after a 9-5 start, the Tigers’ pitching fell apart, veterans Ivan Nova and Jordan Zimmermann got injured, and there was no good reason to wait. Because of the delay in promoting Mize, the Tigers didn’t waste a year of service time, but they didn’t want to waste development time either. They certainly didn’t rush him and that was frustrating for fans, who launched a semi-facetious #FreeMize campaign.

Mize will hit some rough patches, as he did in the fifth inning when he lost a 3-1 lead. But there’s no evidence of awe or intimidation, and also no aw-shucks, just-happy-to-be-here mentality. He wasn’t shy about his belief he could’ve been in Detroit sooner, or about his plans to stay.

“I still firmly believe I’m ready for this level,” Mize said. “I did a lot of things well tonight. I was very comfortable out there, very collected. I really feel like I belong. There wasn’t a moment where I felt like, I’m overmatched, I’m kind of in the wrong place.”

Mize has star qualities, including an array of pitches that few young guys can master. His control can be impeccable, and he didn’t walk anyone Wednesday night. The first batter he faced was the scorching Tim Anderson, who led off with home runs the previous two nights, and Mize induced him to fly out.

“For us, it was important to make sure these guys got more work before we just rushed them in there,” Avila said. “I’m excited and nervous at the same time. I will try to temper everybody’s expectations and remember guys in the past we’ve brought up. It takes a little while to blend in and take off.”

This is the blending part. The best comparison recently for the Tigers is Justin Verlander, drafted No. 2 overall in 2004, who pitched in two games in 2005 and then went 17-9 in 2006. He had the luxury of debuting in a non-pandemic situation and flourished quickly.

As far as fan excitement in Detroit, Mize’s arrival stands out during an exceedingly dry period. You probably have to go back to the Prince Fielder signing to find a similar buzz with the Tigers. There were major stirs when Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh debuted with the Lions. The Red Wings’ splashes generally came from signings and trades, and the Pistons mostly missed on their chances. They might get another shot Thursday night in the NBA draft lottery, although there’s no transcendent player as the No. 1 prize.

So perhaps it starts now with Mize, although the standard warnings are issued. At one time, Michael Fulmer was the next big thing, and he’s still trying to rebound from injuries. Then it was Matthew Boyd, and he has struggled mightily.

None of them – except for Verlander – matched the hype and expectations for Mize, and he says he’s fine with it. He acts like he’s been preparing for it his whole life.

“He’s a pretty polished pitcher and has a tough mindset – you’re not gonna get me, I’ll figure this out,” Gardenhire said. “He’s got an assortment of pitches that he can command. He’s got the weapons to pitch at this level, no doubt about it.”

One outing certainly doesn’t confirm everything we’ve heard about Mize. But in a city hungering for a fresh star, consider the appetite officially whetted.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: bobwojnowski

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