TOLEDO, Ohio — For the first time in 610 days, baseball returned to Fifth Third Field.
It was right-hander Matt Manning‘s second Opening Day start. He started Double-A Erie’s first game in the 2019 season before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the minor leagues in 2020.
He jogged out of the dugout Tuesday for the Toledo Mud Hens in his Triple-A debut. At last, Manning stepped back onto the mound for an official game.
“Honestly, I had a lot of fun out there competing against the guys and being in a real environment,” Manning said after the Mud Hens picked up an 8-6 win over the Nashville Sounds. “The adrenaline. The nervousness of it all. It was great to be back.”
For now, he is a Mud Hen.
“I thought it was good, just to get his feet wet,” Toledo manager Tom Prince said. “Didn’t really have command of the breaking stuff early. Fastball was pretty good. Got a little better in the fifth inning throwing the breaking ball, but I thought he did a nice job.”
Manning pitched five innings, firing 51 of his 80 pitches for strikes. (The pitch-tracking technology in the ballpark that feeds information to Statcast was down, so Manning’s full pitch selection, speeds and spin rates aren’t available.) He gave up five runs on six hits and one walk, with six strikeouts. But his performance wasn’t all bad.
“The competition is a lot better,” Manning said, comparing Triple-A to his old Double-A stomping grounds. “Every pitch can mean something. At any point, someone could do damage. A lot more focus goes into it, more execution. Just all-out competing, I felt like I was on another level with my fastball.”
Manning fell behind 1-0 to five batters in the third inning — during which he allowed three runs. The only other man he faced, Jamie Westbrook, singled on the first pitch in his leadoff at-bat.
Weston Wilson and Dee Strange-Gordon flied out, but Derek Fisher walked on five pitches to put two runners on. Dustin Peterson crushed a 1-1 fastball to right field for a 3-0 lead. Manning gave up another two-out home run in the fourth inning to Mario Feliciano on a first-pitch curveball.
“Good pitches to get ahead with,” Manning said. “I threw them for strikes, and it just caught too much plate. That stuff in years past I’d be able to get away with, and I won’t be able to get away with it from here on out. It’s all good stuff to learn from.”
Manning pounded the strike zone in the first inning, throwing 13 of 18 pitches for strikes. Strange-Gordon opened with a single, eventually advancing to third with two outs.
But Manning struck out Jace Peterson looking to squeeze out of the jam. He bunny-hopped off the mound, showing his emotions through the purest form of excitement. He delivered a perfect second inning, racking up two strikeouts.
“I just wanted to get ahead and just pound it inside,” Manning said about the first inning. “I’m just happy how I handled it on the bases, and I kept him from scoring.”
Manning’s curveball — considered the best pitch in his arsenal — wasn’t very good.
“My fastball command was great,” Manning said. “After the first two innings, they put an approach together just not to swing at any breaking ball stuff, and rightfully so. I wasn’t spotting it up. I wasn’t using it well, so it was a good approach by them. That’s where I’m going to go work on for the next four days.”
In the sixth inning, Manning improved the command of his non-fastball offerings. He still gave up a first-pitch homer to Fisher on a changeup for a 5-3 deficit, but he kept his opponents guessing to earn two swinging strikeouts on elevated fastballs.
Manning’s lack of curveball command defined his Triple-A debut.
“Once I started getting the feel for (the cuvervball) toward the end, they were almost sitting on it,” Manning said. “Back to the drawing board with that stuff to be where I need to be.”
— Outfielder Nomar Mazara (left abdominal strain) started his rehab assignment Tuesday, batting second in the lineup as the designated hitter. He will play right field in Wednesday’s game. He crushed a solo home run to ignite a three-run fourth inning. “Just trying to get him back,” Prince said. “He’s been off for a little while now. He’s been working in the cages. He took infield with us today, throwing to the bases. He’s doing pretty good.” It shouldn’t be long before the Tigers activate him.
— Renato Nunez, who made an error at first base, struck out in three of his five at-bats. He will always be a strikeout machine. But he’s also a slugger. He displayed his strength with a solo home run in the fourth inning to “Mike Hessman Home Run Alley” beyond the left-field wall. Nunez got called up to the Tigers in April when Miguel Cabrera went to the 10-day injured list. Nunez was designated for assignment after seven games: 4-for-27 (.148) with two homers, three RBIs, one walk and eight strikeouts. He cleared waivers and reported to Toledo. “If you play in the big leagues, you want to stay there forever,” Nunez said. “Things happen, and unfortunately it happened to me. But I feel blessed that I can put on the uniform and play baseball right now. Hopefully, I’ll be back soon.”
— Second baseman Kody Clemens went 2-for-5 with a triple. He scored on a wild pitch. He added a single to center field in the sixth. Expect Clemens to serve as a first baseman at times this season, but he should spend most of his time at second base. The Tigers think he’s getting close to MLB-ready. “I just like his aggressiveness,” Prince said. “He’s got no fear. I mean, he comes from the background in the family, but he’s been a real pleasure to watch. He works hard every day. It pays off on nights like this. It’s good to see him smile.”
— Other notables: Zack Short (0-for-3, one walk, one strikeout), Isaac Paredes (0-for-5, one strikeout), Jake Rogers (0-for-3, one walk, three strikeouts) and Derek Hill (1-for-4, double, one strikeout). Eric Haase — listed as a catcher — played left field, while Rogers caught Manning. Haase finished 1-for-2 with an RBI-double, and two walks. Short took the field at shortstop; Paredes handled third base.
— Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez relieved Manning to pitch the sixth and seventh innings. He tossed two scoreless frames, allowing two hits and one walk. He logged his two strikeouts in a three up, three down seventh inning. The nine-year MLB veteran should find his way back to the majors at some point in 2021.
— Right-hander Jason Foley pitched the eighth inning and struck out all three batters he faced. Foley tossed nine of 13 pitches for strikes. The 25-year-old made an impressive leap in the farm system, skipping Double-A Erie. Armed with a 100 mph fastball, keep an eye out for Foley in Detroit this year. “What’s not to like? It comes out pretty hot, and it’s sinking pretty good,” Prince said. “Pretty good slider. That was good to see. Pretty impressive, what he was doing out there.”
— Christin Stewart hit a three-run go-ahead home run in the sixth inning. Remember, Stewart has a track record of dominating in Triple-A but struggling in the majors.
— Ex-Tigers closer Joe Jimenez pitched the top of the ninth inning in a save situation. He gave up a first-pitch home run then got the next three batters out for his first save in the 2021 season. Jimenez went to Detroit for a two-game stint in April. He was promptly sent down after allowing five runs on zero hits and seven walks in one inning.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.