The 23-year-old right-hander’s season for Triple-A Toledo was supposed to catapult him to the Detroit Tigers and his MLB debut in 2021. He was eager to join Skubal and Casey Mize — a pair of 24-year-olds expected to lead the starting rotation into the future.
But Manning’s season wasn’t going as planned. He needed some advice ahead of his June 9 start for the Mud Hens.
“For some reason, I just called him,” Manning said Tuesday about a recent interaction with Skubal. “We went to his apartment (in Detroit) and just talked for like two hours about baseball and everything. It just calmed me down.”
Because of injuries, the Tigers placed their own call to Manning.
The 2016 first-round pick was called up Tuesday to the traveling taxi squad in Kansas City and will be activated before starting Thursday against the Shohei Ohtani-led Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, California. Manning is the team’s No. 3 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.
“I’m fighting to stay,” Manning said. “I’m fighting for my life every time I go out there. The team has been struggling with some arms recently, so I want to do it for them. I want to eat up as many innings as I can and get this team as many wins as possible.”
In seven starts for Triple-A Toledo, Manning posted an 8.07 ERA, 10 walks, 36 strikeouts and 11 home runs allowed in 32⅔ innings.
He lacked execution in most of his outings, resulting in too many homers. His ERA rocketed to 9.32 after allowing seven runs over 3⅔ innings in his June 3 start against the Memphis Redbirds. It was his sixth of seven appearances in 2021.
“I learned that you can’t always out-stuff people, out-velo them,” Manning said. “I think I really learned to pitch toward the end of it, inside and out. I had a lot of good innings in between, a lot of not so good ones. It was a very good learning experience. The adversity I went through and overcoming it is going to make me a better pitcher.”
The conversation with Skubal must have helped, as Manning pitched better against the Louisville Bats on June 9 at Fifth Third Field in Toledo. He gave up two runs on four hits and two walks while striking out eight and not allowing a home run in six innings.
Manning knows he has the pitches to get outs in the major leagues. During spring training, he struck out Philadelphia Phillies standout Bryce Harper with three consecutive fastballs. He got beat up on the mound a few times in camp, as well.
Finding the recipe for success boils down to throwing strikes, attacking with a purpose and mixing his pitches.
“His velocity has ticked up toward the end of his outings, and we’ve got to get him into his outing with his best stuff,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said about the reports he received from Triple-A manager Tom Prince. “He’s eased into it with velocity and execution.
“The pitch that’s really a separator for him is his breaking ball, and he’s always in between curveball and slider. He’s got to find the right mix and the right feel for when to throw it for a strike and when to throw the chase breaking ball. The (fastball) up top is a really effective pitch for him, but that is predicated on throwing strikes with your other pitches.
“If you’re a high fastball pitcher, and there’s no other threat to throw a strike with another pitch, that puts you in a really tough spot against good hitters. As the (June 9) outing went on last time, he landed his breaking ball at a more effective rate, which made his 95 (mph)-plus fastball pretty good.”
As Manning seeks improvement under the guidance of Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter, he will be reunited with close friends Mize and Skubal.
For Double-A Erie in 2019, Manning logged 133⅔ innings across 24 starts. He gave up just seven home runs and 38 walks to go with his 148 strikeouts. He pitched alongside Mize and Skubal with the SeaWolves. The trio went to the alternate training site in Toledo together last season before Mize and Skubal made their MLB debuts in August.
“I’m just so comfortable around these guys,” Manning said. “They’re the people I want to be around.”
And the Tigers couldn’t be more excited.
The organization has waited years for Mize, Skubal and Manning to suit up the majors at the same time. It’s unclear how long Manning will stick around, but a long-term opportunity is on the table if he meets expectations.
This season, Mize has pitched 70⅔ innings across 12 games. He has a 3.44 ERA with 22 walks and 59 strikeouts. Skubal has thrown 60 innings in 13 games (11 starts), with a 4.35 ERA, 29 walks and 74 strikeouts.
“We have visions in the future of those three being very stable parts of a rotation,” Hinch said. “They’ve got to go all out and earn it. They’re at different points of their development to become guys like that, but I hope what Tarik and Casey have learned so far will be quickly communicated to Matt as he gets underway.”
Once Mize and Skubal wrap up the series with the Kansas City Royals, the attention of the front office, coaching staff and fans will shift to Manning’s MLB debut against the Angels.
That’s when the awaited Mize-Skubal-Manning starting rotation finally gets underway.
“It’s definitely going to be fun,” Manning said. “I hope it’s the first of many. All my focus right now is to attack each hitter, eat up as many innings as I can, throw up as many zeros as I can and learn as much as I can. And have a lot of fun.”
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.