Casey Mize was in trouble.
The stress was building and the Detroit Tigers rookie pitcher tensed up from the pressure on Monday night against the Chicago Cubs.
“I threw a lot of stressful pitches tonight,” Mize said after struggling in his debut in Comerica Park, as he recorded his first loss, 9-3.
Mize couldn’t command his fastball and struggled to get ahead of hitters. He kept battling — never crumbling or totally falling apart — but he was unable to find his usual pinpoint control. After not allowing a walk in his major league debut, Mize walked two on Monday.
“It just seemed like the more I was in that situation, the more I was gripping the ball and really tensing up and just really trying to do a lot,” Mize said after giving up five hits and three earned runs in 3⅓ innings.
So let’s step back and look at the big picture.
After months of waiting for the top pitching prospect in the Tigers’ organization, after all the hoopla and rankings, Mize is still searching for his first win.
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What should we make of that?
It is natural for a rookie pitcher to take some time to get comfortable, to learn all the lessons. The first two games predict nothing.
Mize and former Tigers great Justin Verlander have similar numbers after two games.
When Verlander made his first two starts for the Tigers in 2005, he didn’t look like a future no-hit throwing, Cy Young Award winner. He lost both games. Mize has only lost one.
But let’s dig a little deeper.
Mize’s stats after two games: 7.04 ERA with a 1.825 WHIP.
Verlander’s stats after his first two games: 7.15 ERA with a 1.765 WHIP.
Mize has displayed better control than Verlander, although they are different pitchers. Verlander had seven strikeouts and five walks in his first 11⅓ innings, giving up 15 hits and nine runs. Mize has pitched 7.2 innings, struck out nine with two walks.
What did Verlander learn from those first two games?
I went back through the archives and found a quote, where he talked about it.
“I just didn’t have it when I went up there,” Verlander told the Associated Press in 2006, while looking back on his first two starts in 2005. “The first time, I didn’t have my curve. The second time, my fastball wasn’t very good. Hitters catch on to that real quick. But, all in all, I learned what I had to learn.”
Well, that sounds familiar.
Mize didn’t have his fastball on Monday night.
“He needed to command it better tonight,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Normally he’s locked in. He didn’t command his fastball as well. And for whatever reason, it might be maybe trying to make adjustments with all their hitters.”
Mize has to learn from it. Just as Verlander learned. Just as every rookie has to learn to adjust.
It’s not unusual for rookie pitchers to struggle in their first few games.
All it does is set up learning opportunities.
“I think I just I need to actually just settle down in those situations and be calm and actually do the opposite of you know, grip the baseball really hard and try to do a lot,” Mize said. “In that situation, less is more. And then really just try to focus on hitting spots and commanding and just being calm out there. Tonight, I don’t think I did a good job of that.”
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The best teacher
The weird thing is, this game started off great for Mize.
Pitching in Comerica Park for the first time — although with no fans in the stands — Mize looked comfortable, poised and determined for one inning. Mize cruised through the first inning on 15 pitches, getting two strikeouts and an easy ground ball.
“We kind of executed the game plan really well in the first in the first inning and the plan was to continue to do that and execute but I just really we had a good plan,” Mize said.
But after that, nothing was easy for Mize.
He danced in and out of trouble, and the Tigers defense didn’t help, making two errors.
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“This is all a learning experience for him getting out there,” Gardenhire said. “We all know this kid can really pitch. He just didn’t get it done tonight, the way he would want it or any of us would want it.”
It would be foolish to jump to any conclusions after just two starts for either Mize or Tarik Skubal, who has a 10.38 ERA and a 2.769 WHIP.
But in the Free Press archive, I found an interesting quote, which seems so important right now.
“So even if the two of them fail for a little while, getting comfortable with how things work in the big leagues is more valuable than any time you can spend in Triple-A, in my opinion. It only works with certain people. Others would crack.”
That was Brandon Inge, back in 2006, and he was talking about Verlander and Joel Zumaya.
It’s probably important to keep in mind, when talking about Mize and Skubal.
This is a process.
This is just bonus time for Skubal and Mize. A chance to learn. And it’s incredibly valuable, as Inge said.
As far as the danger, I don’t think either one of these pitchers is going to crack.
Tense up maybe.
But not crack.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.