Matt Manning’s MLB debut gives Detroit Tigers a glimpse of the ‘nice nucleus’ developing

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers top pitching prospect Matt Manning draped his arms over the dugout railing and smiled.

“Definitely fun,” Manning said Thursday. “A lot of emotions. It was just good enough to where I feel good about it, but there are some things I need to clean up for the next one, and I’m going to go to work in the next couple of days and get it right.”

In some ways, Manning is a living timeline of the franchise’s overhaul. He was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2016 draft — before the Tigers chased down fellow starting pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal. Manning, now 23, signified the start of the rebuilding process when he entered pro ball, and his arrival to the big leagues indicates the rebuild is close to ending.

He allowed two runs on four hits and two walks with three strikeouts in a 7-5 loss Thursday to the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, about 400 miles south of Sacramento where the right-hander was born and raised. Manning, the No. 3 prospect in the Tigers’ farm system and the No. 18 prospect in all of baseball, gave his team a chance to win.

“It was an emotional night for him and probably the most stressful pitches he’s ever thrown in his life,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said postgame. “He held it together pretty well. I didn’t know how he was going to feel, how much he was going to command his stuff. As the night went along, he got more comfortable and showed us a lot of things that we like and why we like him moving forward.”

LOOKING BACK: How Matt Manning’s pitching prospect predecessors fared in their MLB debuts

GROWING UP: What Matt Manning learned in Triple-A Toledo before getting called up

The pivotal moment in Manning’s debut came in the second inning.

Center fielder Daz Cameron slow-played a ball up the middle, allowing Kean Wong to turn a single into a double. With two outs, Luis Rengifo smacked a single to left fielder Akil Baddoo, who missed the cutoff man. His mistake, as Los Angeles’ first run scored, allowed Rengifo to reach third base.

The next batter, David Fletcher, singled to right field for a 2-0 lead.

“I didn’t want it to end there,” Manning said. “I wanted to keep going.”

Pitching coach Chris Fetter marched to the mound.

“He told me to get ahead (in the count),” Manning said. “He gave me a good plan for the next couple pitches, and it gave me a breather with some infield hits and all that stuff going on. It’s part of the game, it’s what I’m here for.”

The defensive miscues didn’t stop Manning from attacking ex-Tiger Justin Upton. As Fetter requested, Manning got ahead 0-1. After two breaking balls for a 1-2 count, he froze Upton with a 95 mph fastball to end the inning.

It was his first MLB strikeout.

First baseman Miguel Cabrera, who spent much of the game conversing with Angels’ two-way star Shohei Ohtani, accidentally tossed the strikeout ball into the stands. The Tigers quickly tracked down the ball and retrieved it, but Manning — as of late Thursday night — was still waiting to get his paws on his piece of history.

“That’s all right,” Manning said. “I don’t really care about the first one. I hope there’s a lot more.”

[ How Tigers rookie Matt Manning battled through errors to earn another MLB start ]

Manning might give the ball to his father Rich, a former NBA player. Or maybe it will end up with one of the other 70 family members and friends in attendance at Angel Stadium. “Too many to count,” he said about his fans in the stands.

“It’s very special,” Manning said. “I had a lot of people here, and I’m so happy that I was able to debut in my home state. All the people that came and supported me, I’m very appreciative.”

Including the Upton strikeout, Manning retired 10 of his final 12 batters before reaching 77 pitches through five innings. He did enough to earn another start Wednesday against the St. Louis Cardinals at Comerica Park.

As for Manning’s biggest takeaway?

“Just the fact that I was able to put away some of the emotions and not make it bigger than it was,” Manning said. “Once I got out there, I felt very comfortable. As the game went on, it just kept building.”

If the Tigers could have given Manning more time in the minor leagues, they would have. However, injuries piled up to the point where he was their best option. He was crushed in Triple-A Toledo for an 8.07 ERA, 10 walks and 11 home runs allowed in 32⅓ innings over seven starts. He struck out 36 batters.

For the Mud Hens, Manning struggled to throw his secondary pitches for strikes.

He showed his potential in the third inning against Taylor Ward. He threw Ward a first-pitch curveball for a called strike, overwhelmed with a 95 mph fastball for a swinging strike and then got him to line out with a 97 mph fastball. All three pitches were in the strike zone.

“That’s the stuff I’m going to work on, landing those (secondary pitches) for strikes,” Manning said, “and then using them as putout pitches.”

Manning threw 47 of 77 pitches for strikes. He walked Ohtani twice and no one else. Of his 77 pitches, a whopping 53 were fastballs. That is nearly 70% fastballs, which needs to change moving forward. (Starting pitchers have averaged 49.6% fastballs in 2021.)

Because it was Manning’s first game, he wanted to utilize his best pitch to get comfortable. Still, he must mix his changeup and curveball more often.

“That’s what got me to this point, and that’s what I used,” Manning said. “I wasn’t going to change. I know the stuff I need to get better at to reach where I want to be. But for right now, I’m just doing what got me here.”

“I think strikes were key for him,” Hinch saidIt’s important for him to learn how to pitch as he goes, but there’s no mass evaluation the first time out. We want him to be able to breathe at the end of the night.”

A glimpse of the future

The night before Manning’s MLB debut, he called fellow pitching prospect Alex Faedo on FaceTime to “get me right” ahead of the start. Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Faedo is another arm the franchise is counting on to help anchor the rotation. (He was the No. 18 overall pick in 2017.)

“It was late,” Manning said. “I fell asleep on him. I was so tired.”

For now, the Tigers have their big three — Mize, Skubal and Manning — in the major leagues. They pitched in back-to-back-to-back games, something the organization has dreamed of since they became top prospects.

Here are the results from Mize, Skubal and Manning in the past three days:

Mize: 6⅔ innings, seven hits, three earned runs, one walk, three strikeouts and 103 pitches in a 4-3 win against the Kansas City Royals.

Skubal: 6 innings, six hits, three earned runs, two walks, seven strikeouts and 91 pitches in a 6-5 win over the Royals.

Manning: 5 innings, four hits, two earned runs, two walks, three strikeouts and 77 pitches in a 7-5 loss to the Angels.

“It’s a nice nucleus of starting pitchers that we’re starting to develop,” Hinch said. “This is a kickstart to Manning’s career. We’ve already seen growth out of Mize and Skubal, and it’s very easy to dream on what could be a very interesting trio moving forward.”

GLOVEGATE?: Why Casey Mize’s glove had nothing — and everything — to do with foreign substances in MLB

This season, Mize has a 3.49 ERA with 23 walks and 62 strikeouts over 77⅓ innings across 13 starts. In 14 games (12 starts), Skubal boasts a 4.36 ERA, 31 walks and 81 strikeouts over 66 innings. Through his past six starts, Skubal’s ERA is 3.00 in 33 innings, with 50 strikeouts. They made their MLB debuts in 2020.

“They’re growing up fast, aren’t they?” Hinch said. “They’re doing a great job growing up in the big leagues, taking the responsibility and going with it. … They know that they own the responsibility of giving this team a chance to win because they get the ball first.”

With Mize and Skubal already establishing themselves, Manning is on the clock.

Thursday night in Anaheim was just the beginning.

“He’s works through an injury,” Hinch said. “He sees his friends get up to the big leagues faster than him. He goes to Triple-A thinking it’s going to be a short stint. He gets beat up. We ambush him with a call up after a good outing (in Toledo), and he stepped up and did his part. He’s going to be exhausted tonight because he put a lot of mental and physical energy in.”

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

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