When Casey Mize was at his worst Friday, he was also at his best for Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

It’s not always the stuff that counts. Though if you’re building an ace pitcher, you could do a lot worse than starting with the arm talent of Detroit Tigers rookie Casey Mize.

He throws four pitches well. Two of them — his splitter and breaking ball — are punchout-quality no matter the count or hitter. He can also throw any pitch at any time to anyone. That’s his goal, anyway, and judging by his last six outings, it’s not hard to see why.

Still, the stuff won’t always be there. Nor will the command, as it wasn’t Friday night when the 24-year-old took the mound at Comerica Park against the Yankees. As he put it, he kept “yanking to my glove side.”

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Which is pitcher-speak for throwing your delivery off-kilter and, in turn, forcing too many balls up in the zone. Hitters like balls up in the zone, and that means trouble.

That was something Mize avoided against the Yankees until the fifth inning, when he grooved an 0-2 fastball to Rougned Odor, who welcomed the mistake by lifting it into the first few rows of the right-field seats.

It wasn’t just that Mize left the pitch up, it was that he left it over the middle of the plate. He made a mistake. It happens — to rookies trying to find their way, and to Cy Young winners chasing shutouts.

The question is: What does a pitcher do next?

Mize is beginning to figure out the answer and, in the process, give Tigers fans something good in a season where not much has been.

That matters, because Mize’s recent streak of success was no sure thing. Even so, he still has a way to go — Mize will tell you that, too.

But to watch this young pitcher hone his repertoire, and figure out when and where to use it, is to remember how much a rotation needs an ace — someone who can stop a losing streak and start a winning one, as former manager Jim Leyland used to say.

There may not be momentum in baseball from game to game, but there is a psychological benefit for a team that knows it can pencil in a starter every five days and have a good chance to win.

This is what Mize has given the Tigers in each of his past six outings. This is what he gave them Friday night.

[ Video: Mize breaks down his strong start in 3-2 loss to Royals ]

Yes, he was the No. 1 overall pick. Yes, he’s supposed to have this kind of ability. And, yes, the Tigers’ front office didn’t show any extra scouting wisdom in taking him.

Still, they took him. And he’s developing.

There are several reasons the 2018pick has been dominant the last month. A suggestion from his pitching coach, Chris Fetter, that he change his mound positioning. A decision to take fewer chances when ahead in the count.  A continued effort to study film and hitters and his own mechanics.

All of it has helped Mize look like the ace the Tigers’ brass envisioned. None of it matters, though, without the ability to flush a mistake and move on to the next hitter, especially on a night when your stuff isn’t there.

After Odor homered to tie the game, Clint Frazier singled, pushing Mize’s pitch count to 71. The next batter, Kyle Higashioka, drew a 3-0 count. A month ago, Mize might have pressed, particularly if he’d opened an inning by giving up a home run, a single and three consecutive balls.

Instead, he dug in, striking out Higashioka on three fastballs: one up and in, one down and away, one waist-high and away. Higashioka watched them all.

Brett Gardner followed with a single, moving Frazier to second. The game started to teeter.

Mize responded by striking out the next two Yankees, ending the inning with a wicked 86-mph slider to Giancarlo Stanton. It was the performance you want from a top-of-the rotation starter.

“I’m just getting more comfortable in those situations,” Mize said. “Last year I let the innings snowball too much.”

Mize didn’t return for the sixth inning. His manager, A.J. Hinch, didn’t want to push him — Mize had thrown 97 pitches.

The rookie credited the bullpen after the Tigers won, 3-2, on a walk-off homer from Robbie Grossman. Mize credited the defense, too.

“Proud of the way we battled,” he said.

Listen to Mize long enough and you’ll hear “we” often. This is by design, no doubt. It’s a veteran move, meant to show humility and gratitude, as he did after the game when he gave kudos to Fetter, his pitching coach.

Mize understands this is critical to his growth and improvement. He also understands that in the moment when an inning can slip away — when a game can slip away — he is by himself.

In those moments, it’s up to him to tweak his mechanics, up to him to execute the pitch, up to him to fight, no matter how many pitches the hitter fouls off, no matter that he has given up a home run on an 0-2 pitch and a single and three straight balls.

Those are the moments that separate the No. 1 starter and the No. 5 starter, the moments when games are won and lost.

In the trickiest spot of an already difficult outing, Mize showed a glimpse of his future. Then he tossed credit to everyone around him.

“He was impressive,” Hinch said.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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