DETROIT — The Tigers returned from California in the wee hours of Monday morning, but Matt Manning still got up in time for breakfast. He had a date to see an old friend.
Come Wednesday, Manning will be seeing Dylan Carlson again, this time in the batter’s box.
“We grew up together. We played Little League together,” said Manning, who grew up in Sacramento, Calif.
While Manning was a late bloomer at Sheldon High School, Carlson was a star at nearby Elk Grove High School. Both went in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft — Manning to the Tigers with the ninth overall selection, Carlson to the Cardinals with the 33rd, a compensation pick. Carlson made his MLB debut last summer, and Manning might have done the same if not for a right forearm strain that shut him down at the end of August.
Instead, Manning debuted last Thursday at Angel Stadium as the opposing pitcher in a Shohei Ohtani start. When he takes the mound Wednesday for his first home start as a Tiger, he’ll be the headliner.
Manning pitched in Detroit during Summer Camp last year, of course, facing Tigers hitters. That was in an empty stadium and in a game that didn’t count. This is obviously different.
“The nerves of my first [start] have kind of gone away,” Manning said. “But now I know it’s all about competing and results and trying to get a ‘W.’”
Manning held his own against the Angels, allowing just two runs in five innings. Only one of the four hits he allowed went for extra bases, a Kean Wong double that fueled a two-run second inning. Nearly 70 percent of Manning’s pitches — and all three strikeouts — were fastballs, a rate that will surely drop.
“One, I don’t think he’ll be as nervous as he was the first time,” Detroit manager A.J. Hinch said. “And two, execution is always going to be key for him. This is a team that there’s areas to go with your fastball, but there’s also some needed secondary pitches to use.”
Manning’s big secondary pitch is his curveball, which earned the same grade as his fastball (both 60 on the 20-to-80 scale) on MLB Pipeline’s scouting report of him. He threw just six curves last Thursday and drew no swings and one strike call with the pitch. But when it’s on, it’s a buckler.
“I think right now I’m kind of feeling my way through it,” Manning said. “I know I’ve got to throw more curveballs for strikes, more changeups and whatnot, but I kind of just go out there and go by what I read off swings. If my fastball is going to play 65 percent of the time, that’s what I’ll throw. And when I need to throw something else, I will.”
That ability to read swings is big, and it demonstrates the growth Manning has made over his five years since bypassing a chance to play college basketball and baseball at Loyola Marymount and make baseball his full-time job instead.
When he reads Carlson’s reaction the first time he steps into the box, he could allow himself to crack a smile. They’ve faced each other in live batting practice sessions in the offseason, but that won’t compare.
“Yeah, I’m going to try not to [smile],” Manning said, “but I’ve never done it at this setting. So I’m going to try to put those emotions aside and kind of divorce myself from who’s in the box and get after it.”