Casey Mize couldn’t get out of his own way.
The Detroit Tigers’ rookie right-hander plunked three batters, walked two more and put himself in trouble each inning. He ran his pitch count up to 67 through three frames, which was enough for manager Ron Gardenhire to keep him from returning in the fourth.
“I enjoy my job,” Gardenhire said Sunday. “And if I left him out there for any more, (general manager) Al (Avila) would not be very happy with me.”
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Seemed like MLB debut jitters from Mize.
Except this is his third big-league start, and his performance has faltered a little more with every outing. In Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Minnesota Twins, he lost all control.
“Everybody thought it was just going to be easy as pie,” Gardenhire said. “It’s not. This is the big leagues. There’s a lot of great hitters, and they’re going to compete just like he’s competing.
“So, you know what, he’ll find it. He’s just got to slow the game down a little bit and make better pitches.”
Mize admits his command faltered. He abandoned his go-to splitter because he spiked three of them in the dirt. He only got one strike swinging with it — a punch-out of Jake Cave after walking Nelson Cruz and hitting Miguel Sano in the first inning.
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Without touch on his splitter, the 23-year-old had a difficult time getting his secondary pitches working. He went through the same problem in his last start Aug. 24 against the Chicago Cubs, where he gave up four runs (three earned) with 76 pitches in 3⅓ innings.
“Didn’t have command and control over the baseball, and it’s really tough to pitch without it,” Mize said Sunday. “I felt like I battled with what I had, which is very little. Man, I really feel like I competed and battled, but it’s really tough to pitch when you can’t command the baseball.”
The only confident pitch Mize had was his curveball, which he used on back-to-back throws against Max Kepler in the second inning to strike him out swinging and end the second inning. He had just tossed a wild pitch with his splitter to allow a run, but his decision to attack Kepler down and away displayed his resilence.
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In the third inning, a low line drive from Luis Arraez drilled him in the left shin. After getting the OK from athletic trainer Doug Teter, Mize struck out Marwin Gonzalez swinging with a fastball to end his outing.
And an adjustment might not immediately be on the way.
He doesn’t know how to refine his command — because he has never lost it like this. He’s working on finding a trick or shortcut to get back in touch with his pitches at a moment’s notice. That will take time.
“Nothing I’m too worried about because my whole life I feel like I’ve been able to command and control the baseball fairly well,” Mize said. “It’s not something I’m really worried about, but the last two starts, it hasn’t been there, and it hasn’t been good for me.”
Through 21 starts and 109⅓ innings for Triple-A Toledo last season, Mize registered a 2.55 ERA, 0.942 WHIP and 106 strikeouts compared to 23 walks. In three MLB starts across 10⅔ innings since his Aug. 17 callup, he has a 6.75 ERA, 13 strikeouts, four walks and four hit batters.
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Mize is in a hurry to become the pitcher he knows he can be as the Tigers are 16-16 overall after five victories in a row. They’ve won three consecutive series against winning opponents: the Cubs, Twins and Cleveland Indians.
So the race for a spot in the playoffs is underway with 28 games left.
The No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft wants to be a part of it.
“It’s a really good group, and we’re playing well, so it’s good vibes around this team right now,” Mize said. “Hopefully, we can keep it going, keep moving forward.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.