Manning to break into The Show vs. Sho

Detroit Tigers

Shohei Ohtani has become baseball’s next big star. Matt Manning is starting on his path to becoming the Tigers’ next big young starter.

On Thursday night at Angel Stadium, those paths will intersect.

While Manning, ranked as the Tigers’ No. 3 prospect and No. 18 in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100, will make his anticipated Major League debut in front of family and friends in his home state, the vast majority of the full-capacity crowd will be there to watch Ohtani, who entered Wednesday leading the American League in Wins Above Replacement and second with 18 home runs. His 2.85 ERA would rank sixth among AL pitchers if he had enough innings to qualify.

First pitch for Thursday’s series opener is set for 9:38 p.m. ET. The game is being broadcast for free on MLB’s YouTube channel.

For his part, Manning says he isn’t worried about the buzz surrounding Ohtani’s latest showcase.

“He’ll be doing his thing,” Manning said on Tuesday, “and I’m going to go out and do mine.”

That’s not entirely true, though. Because Ohtani usually hits on days that he pitches, his batting will intersect with Manning’s pitching, at least for one at-bat. That pits one of baseball’s most formidable power hitters against a gifted prospect who battled the long ball this year at Triple-A Toledo.

Manning’s promotion came as much out of need as for performance. He gave up three home runs in both of his first two outings for the Mud Hens, and 10 home runs over his first five starts. By comparison, he gave up just seven home runs in each of his previous two seasons, including his last season in 2019 at Double-A Erie, which can be a favorable park for power hitters.

Manning’s strikeout rate was strong, but so was the damage. Clearly, there was a refinement to be made, a new level of precision to reach. His arsenal was still impressive, from a fastball in the mid to upper 90s to a changeup, with a buckling curveball and a recently-developed slider. How to use them, and to locate them, was an issue.

“I learned how to pitch inside,” Manning said. “I learned about landing my breaking balls, being a little more fine towards the edges, knowing when to expand the zone, when throwing too many strikes is sometimes a bad thing.

“I think for the most part, I threw strikes. The quality of strikes was better in some innings, sometimes it fell off. Those are things you get away with in the lower levels. The Triple-A hitters are real and they made me pay for it, and it made me better.”

Manning lowered his home-run rate a few starts ago, but gave up damage on smaller hits, including 13 runs on 15 hits over seven innings in a two-start stretch. His refinements came together his last start, allowing two runs on four hits in six innings against the same Louisville club that roughed him up two starts earlier. He racked up a season-high eight strikeouts.

“Mentally, he’s in a really good place,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “That was important for me to hear, to talk about his early Triple-A struggles, but also talk about his last start and everything in between. And he’s very realistic. When you give up those kind of homers at a rapid pace like that with guys on base, and you give up that many runs, the numbers aren’t going to be very good. He acknowledges that.

“He’s throwing the ball the best he’s thrown this season. So obviously, my advice to him was to bring that version of himself when he faces Anaheim on Thursday. He doesn’t have to do too much. He doesn’t have to ease into it. I’m not going to baby him, but I am going to hand him the ball to start the game. There’s only one Major League debut, and that’s going to come on Thursday for him.”

It’s going to come in a fitting setting. The Sacramento-area native expects to have plenty of friends and family in attendance. Among them will be his father, Rich Manning, a former NBA center who played for the L.A. Clippers in 1997.

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