How Detroit Tigers rookie Casey Mize is ‘finally putting in the effort on the mental side’

Detroit Free Press

When the Detroit Tigers drafted Casey Mize No. 1 overall in 2018 — “1-1” in front-office terms — they viewed the Auburn product as a potential frontline starter for years to come.

An ace, even.

Mize, 24, fired seven scoreless innings in his second start this season — the ninth game of his MLB career — to beat the Houston Astros on April 12 at Minute Maid Park. He dropped in five strikeouts and made one of the best lineups in baseball look foolish for most of the night.

Added to four innings of one-run ball in his April 6 season debut against the Minnesota Twins, the dominance seemed like a breakthrough.

“His career is just getting started,” catcher Grayson Greiner said, approvingly.

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But Mize allowed 11 earned runs in 9⅔ innings — a 10.24 ERA — in his next two starts. The positive: Only three walks combined against the Oakland Athletics (April 17) and Kansas City Royals (April 23). The negative: 14 hits, five home runs and just five strikeouts.

The rising right-hander has bounced back nicely, though, scoring an A-plus in his past two tests. He has a 4.41 ERA with 14 walks and 23 strikeouts in 32⅔ innings across six starts. Last year, he had a 6.99 ERA in 28⅓ innings over seven starts.

“He’s one of our guys,” said veteran righty Michael Fulmer, the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year. “He was ‘1-1’ for a reason. He’s got great stuff, and I think he’s finally putting in the effort on the mental side of the game, and it’s showing up for him and the team.”

Against the White Sox

In Game 1 of an April 29 doubleheader against the White Sox in Chicago, Mize imploded early in the fifth inning of a 3-1 loss. A leadoff single from Jake Lamb on a 1-2 fastball — down the middle instead of up in the zone — ruined Mize’s confidence, and he walked Andrew Vaughn and Zack Collins to load the bases.

The White Sox capitalized with three runs, capped by a two-RBI single from Leury Garcia. It didn’t help that first baseman Miguel Cabrera bobbled a potential force out at home plate on Billy Hamilton’s RBI groundout, only getting the first out of the inning at first.

“I’ve had a lot of not really great starts to begin my career, but this is one of the, if not the most disappointing one for me,” Mize said afterward. “I felt like I was throwing the ball well, but the fifth got away from me. … It just really sucks.”

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Mize locked back in, though: Tim Anderson flied out to left field on a first-pitch slider for the second out, and Adam Eaton struck out swinging on a curveball to end the frustrating inning. The disappointment of Lamb’s at-bat lingered, but he eventually snapped out of it.

The slip-up came from Mize’s mentality.

He is a perfectionist.

“I love part of that, and I don’t like part of that,” Hinch said. “That pitch (to Lamb) needs be thought about in isolation. It can’t lead to the next two walks that set up the inning, and now we didn’t make a play behind him, and we lost the lead, and he lost his momentum.”

Hinch gave Mize a “development inning” when he sent him back out for the sixth to face the heart of Chicago’s lineup: Yoan Moncada, Jose Abreu and Lamb. He gave up a first-pitch double to Moncada on a slider.

Hinch forced Mize to figure it out.

“I appreciate him trusting in me,” Mize said. “Even when Moncada hits the first-pitch double, he allowed me to work through that, and I was able to strand him. I definitely appreciate a manager allowing me to work through moments like that.”

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After the leadoff double, Mize sat down the White Sox in order — Abreu grounded out to third for the first out, Lamb struck out looking on a 94.6 mph fastball for the second out and Vaughn struck out swinging on a 94.5 mph fastball for the third.

He finished with three runs alloweed on four hits and three walks, with six strikeouts, throwing 53 of his 87 pitches for strikes.

“That was progress for him,” Hinch said.

Against the Red Sox

On Wednesday against the Boston Red Sox, Mize made his first start at historic Fenway Park. He signed his name inside the Green Monster in left field on Tuesday, before taking the ball the next day.

Although Mize took a no-decision because of the Tigers’ bullpen — which was bailed out by Jeimer Candelario’s three-run blast in the top of the 10th inning — his performance helped the Tigers snap a six-game losing streak with a 6-5 win.

He had the Lamb at-bat from Chicago on his mind.

“The big negative of last week was the 1-2 fastball to Lamb that led off the inning with a single derailed me for a second,” Mize said. “I threw eight of the next nine pitches for balls, had the bases loaded and all three of those runs scored. Just really trying to limit that from happening, from one mistake making me frustrated and that piling up. You can put yourself in a bad spot quickly.”

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Mize’s latest “development inning” arrived in the sixth inning. He walked J.D. Martinez to start the inning, followed by a single from Xander Bogaerts. After two quick outs on three pitches — a foul pop-up to first by Christian Vazquez and a groundout to first by Marwin Gonzalez — Mize plunked Christian Arroyo with a first-pitch two-seam fastball.

Up 3-1, Hinch allowed Mize to face Hunter Renfroe.

Mize didn’t let his past mistakes overwhelm him.

“I hit Arroyo in the hand on the pitch before, so we had a meeting about it,” Mize said. “We were kind of like, ‘All right, we’re either thinking slider away or go back in.’ Immediately in my head, I’m like, ‘Let’s just go right back in.’ I felt confident. Some guys might shy away, ‘Oh, I just hit a guy to load the bases, I don’t want to go back in because I might lose my command again.’ No, I was pretty confident going right back in. We were able to get some weak contact out of him (on the first pitch).”

Three pitches later, Renfroe grounded out to third, ending Mize’s night after six innings: One run allowed on three hits and four walks, with three strikeouts.

The sixth inning wasn’t the only jam he faced, with two baserunners in both the second and fourth innings, but it caught the attention of his teammates.

“What he worked out of in the sixth tonight was unbelievable,” Fulmer said. “Casey has been consistent. He’s been great. He deserves that trust, and he’s earned that trust from AJ. I think AJ has told him that, as well.”

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Mize tied a career high with 95 pitches (56 strikes), using nine in the first inning, 26 in the second, 12 in the third, 22 in the fourth, 13 in the fifth and 13 in the sixth. The Red Sox finished 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position against him and stranded seven runners.

For the second time in as many starts, Mize proved to be a reliable big-league starter.

“Casey is really good,” Hinch said. “I know we have a microscope on him, but he can handle these moments.”

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Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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