How Casey Mize forced his way onto the Detroit Tigers Opening Day roster

Detroit Free Press

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Detroit Tigers right-hander Casey Mize pitched masterfully Thursday night.

And with a chip on his shoulder.

“I wanted to make a good impression,” Mize said Thursday. “Because, you know, I needed to. This spring hasn’t been as good as I would have liked for it to be, so I knew I needed to have a pretty good night. There was a little bit of that.”

With a spot in the 2021 Opening Day starting rotation up for grabs, Mize was determined to make the team. He didn’t want to leave manager AJ Hinch and general manager Al Avila with concerns toward the end of spring training.

The next morning, Hinch told Mize his goal was accomplished.

“I met with Casey Mize,” Hinch said Friday, “to let him know he’s going to be in our rotation.”

JOINING THE TEAM: Tigers prospect Casey Mize makes MLB starting rotation; Michael Fulmer to bullpen

Mize had struggled through four contests: 10 innings, 11 earned runs, 10 walks and 12 strikeouts leading up to his clash with the Toronto Blue Jays. On Thursday, however, the 24-year-old struck out nine batters, without any walks, across four innings. He generated 13 swings-and-misses and 12 called strikes.

Dominant strike-throwing had Hinch glowing about his top pitching prospect after the game: “I absolutely trust Casey Mize. If we put him out there, it’s because I believe, our coaches believe and our organization believes he can execute.”

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Mize threw 24 sinkers, 21 sliders, 13 four-seam fastballs, nine splitters and five curveballs. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick got whiffs with four of his offerings: sinker (three), slider (six), four-seamer (one) and splitter (three).

“It’s very evident that he can get major league hitters out,” Hinch said. “He’s made a lot of major-league hitters look bad this spring. And there’s going to be some growing pains. If we expect him to be perfect, we’re setting him up for failure.”

First inning

From the get-go, Mize was pumping gas to catcher Grayson Greiner. He struck out Marcus Semien, who finished third in 2019 American League MVP voting, on a 97.3 mph sinker in a 2-2 count. Next up: Cavan Biggio, the son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.

He worked Biggio for 12 pitches — throwing eight  before the count went full. He gave up a single to center field. The seventh pitch in the at-bat touched a game-high 97.9 mph. His sinker averaged 95.1 mph.

“It’s 3-2 and I don’t want to walk you,” Mize said. “He knows the fastball is coming, and we’re just going to go at it. He’s got a good eye, too. AJ and I talked about that after the fact.”

Hinch added: “It’s a step forward when you don’t concede and throw a split out of the zone to a very zone-controlled hitter and let him walk. That would have been an early-camp approach for Casey. The last two starts specifically have been much more attack mindset. I’ve appreciated that adjustment.”

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He bounced back with 0-2 strikeouts against Bo Bichette, the son of former four-time All-Star Dante Bichette, and Teoscar Hernandez. He dusted them on sliders. Against Bichette, he got him to chase outside of the strike zone. For the Hernandez at-bat, Mize painted the outside corner and caught him looking.

“Got a lot of swings-and-misses on his cutter/slider,” Greiner said Thursday. “His fastball command was really impressive. The backdoor sinkers he was throwing to righties, and the elevated four-seamers, which is something he’s worked really hard on with (pitching coach Chris) Fetter.”

His line so far? Three outs, three strikeouts.

Second inning

Mize needed 24 pitches to get through the first inning, but he managed 19 strikes. (Of course, the Biggio at-bat exhausted his pitch count.) He opened the second frame with a three-pitch strikeout against Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Sr., ending with an 89 mph slider that broke away.

Guerrero went down swinging.

“Hopefully, I proved that I’m going to give it my all and put everything that I have into this game and into this team,” Mize said. “When I look back, and I’m done with this game, I hope that’s something people will notice about me.”

After Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who hit .308 in 57 games last season, flied out left field in a six-pitch at-bat, Mize went back to work with his fastball. He delivered two sinkers to Randal Grichuk — at 95.4 mph (looking) and 96 mph (swinging) — before mesmerizing him with a 96.7 mph four-seamer.

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At this point, Mize had registered seven swings-and-misses through two scoreless innings. He was at 36 pitches (29 strikes) with a fastball living in the upper-90s.

“His stuff is so good, and he was getting ahead of guys,” Greiner said. “Earlier in the spring, he was getting ahead of guys really well, 0-2, 1-2. Then, they would work their way back into the counts. Felt like today, he would get guys into 0-2, 1-2 and put them away in the next couple pitches.”

Six outs, five strikeouts.

Third inning

To open the third inning, Mize struck out Danny Jansen looking. Though, he got behind 2-0 in the count. His third and fourth pitches were sinkers, both fouled away. After going up in the strike zone, Mize went to the bottom corner with a pristine 88.8 mph splitter.

Jansen, a right-handed hitter, watched it pass by him for strike three.

“He went to his split a couple times against righties, which is something we want Casey to do and not just have it be predominantly for lefties,” Hinch said. “It can be an effective pitch. … You’ve got to mix pitches and not fall in love with any sort of pattern.”

He gave up an 0-2 single to Jonathan Davis, the ninth batter in the order. He jumped ahead 0-2 against Semien, another right-handed hitter, before striking him out swinging with splitter — this time well below the strike zone — in a 1-2 count with his fifth pitch of the at-bat. Then, he plunked Biggio.

With runners on first and second base, Mize went into attack mode against Bichette. His first three pitches went low in the zone for strikes, two of which were fouled away. In an 0-2 count, he ripped an elevated 97.5 mph fastball.

Bichette swung hard and missed.

“I was really aggressive with the fastball,” Mize said. “Really pleased with my fastball tonight.”

Nine outs, eight strikeouts.

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Fourth inning

A case could be made that Mize’s fourth inning was just as solid from a location standpoint, but the results say otherwise. The Blue Jays changed their approach, determined not to let Mize get into a two-strike count.

Hernandez doubled on a first-pitch four-seamer, Guerrero doubled on a second-pitch sinker and Gurriel singled on a first-pitch curveball. Just like that, the Blue Jays picked up two runs and took a 2-1 lead.

“He looked like he was in control there,” Greiner said. “The pitches that got hit in that last inning for him, I thought were pretty well-executed pitches. That’s going to happen sometimes. Guerrero put a really good swing on a sinker inside.”

But Mize didn’t shy away from his initial method. He continued attacking, striking out Grichuk on three pitches. He swung at all three, missing on a filthy 87.3 mph slider in the dirt for the first out of the inning.

“He’s a wall back there, man,” Mize said about the 6-foot-6 Greiner. “He got in front of a few balls tonight with runners in scoring position. If they get to the backstop, runs are going to score. Just really comfortable with him, really pleased with his performance tonight.”

Mize entered a tough situation when JaCoby Jones dropped a fly ball on the warning track for an error. Runners advanced to second and third base before Mize induced a weak grounder from Davis and got Semien to sky out to left field.

This time, Jones made the catch to end Mize’s convincing performance.

“We have to allow this kid to grow and mature,” Hinch said. “He’s not the final version of himself, no matter what expectations anybody puts on him. We’re just scratching the surface on stuff like this. I think he’s going to get better and better.”

12 outs, nine strikeouts.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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