BRADENTON, Fla. — Casey Mize came to Spring Training looking to win a rotation spot. He knew better than to try to do that with his first outing. He learned that from his last time here.
One year after Mize allowed runs but closed strong in his Grapefruit League debut at the same park, he had far simpler goals this time around — including enjoying having a crowd.
“I think the big takeaway from today is [I was] just super happy to be in front of fans,” Mize said Tuesday after two scoreless innings during the Tigers’ 6-1 win over the Pirates. “That was just such a pleasure.”
It wasn’t a big gathering — less than 2,000 fans, in accordance with reduced capacity under COVID protocols. But for a pitcher who made his much-anticipated MLB debut seven months ago in an empty ballpark, it was much appreciated.
“Man, I’m never going to take fans for granted ever again,” Mize continued. “It was just a blast to be back in front of fans, and I really enjoyed myself out there.”
Those fans watched a 23-year-old whose toughest opponent for two innings arguably was himself. Mize gave up no solid contact, let alone a hit, but battled through three walks as Pittsburgh batters challenged him to put fastballs in the strike zone.
It fit with one of the lessons he took away from last season. While Mize’s splitter wasn’t as devastating to big league hitters last year as it was on his way through the farm system, his fastball was better and more deceptive than even he expected. If he could locate it and force hitters to look up in the zone instead of down all the time, he could make his other pitches better. Tuesday was a small step in that direction.
“I had three walks, which I’m not happy about,” Mize said, “but I didn’t feel like I didn’t have control of anything. I feel like I was controlling everything, just trying to overpower guys led to a few misfires.”
After Bryan Reynolds took all six pitches he saw for a two-out walk in the first inning, Gregory Polanco fouled off a pair of fastballs with two strikes before whiffing on a splitter to end the inning.
“Finished fastballs are good for [Mize],” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He’s going to get a lot of those when guys see his secondary pitches.”
Mize went to the slider instead of the splitter with a full count in the second inning, walking Todd Frazier after an 0-2 fastball just missed the outside corner, but he recovered to fan Jacob Stallings on three pitches, capped by a 95 mph fastball. A two-out walk to Oneil Cruz — who escaped a 1-2 count — had the bullpen warming before Mize froze Travis Swaggerty on two 96 mph fastballs for an inning-ending strikeout.
The one second-guess Mize had for that inning wasn’t the pitch selection to Frazier, just the location.
“The thing about that Frazier at-bat, I walked him on that slider … that pitch alone, during that at-bat,” Mize said. “Just a veteran guy seeing tons of pitches. I think the slider wasn’t a bad call; I’ve just really got to throw that in for a strike because he’s good enough to see that one down.”
Mize wanted to get his bearings again in his first outing, as he put it, and he did that. He worked his way into trouble but didn’t allow it to escalate.
For a first impression on a new manager, that will work.
“He threw the ball well,” Hinch said. “I think he got a little bit excited to try to punch a few guys out and got a little erratic. He did a good job of getting to two strikes.”