The Milwaukee Brewers put runners on second and third base with two outs in the second inning of Wednesday’s two-game series finale at Comerica Park, thanks to Lorenzo Cain’s RBI double for a 1-0 lead. Once Manny Pina walked, the bases were loaded for the National League Central leaders.
Detroit Tigers starter Matt Manning had been down this road before.
Facing the Oakland Athletics in his Sept. 2 start, the 23-year-old rookie allowed eight runs on eight hits and three walks. Manager AJ Hinch pulled him with two outs in the fourth inning, and the Tigers — despite a respectable comeback — never recovered.
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This time, Manning produced a different outcome. He carried the Tigers to a 4-1 victory and a two-game series sweep against MLB’s fourth-best team, posting six innings of one-run ball. He allowed just two hits and three walks. But Manning’s journey to a strong start began in the second inning.
“Those are the points in games where it can either go bad or it can go good,” Manning said Wednesday. “It’s just how we respond in those situations. That’s the experience I need in this environment to get used to it, because it’s not the last time it’s going to happen. I have to be able to fight out of those situations so I can go five, six and seven innings.”
Kolten Wong stepped to the plate in that second inning, but Manning attacked with a mix of his offerings: curveball (foul), changeup (ball), four-seam fastball (swinging strike), four-seamer (foul), curveball (foul), four-seamer (foul) and, finally, a seventh-pitch two-seam fastball that ended the at-bat.
Wong grounded out to second base; Manning escaped the bases loaded.
“He showed a lot of maturity today,” catcher Dustin Garneau said. “The big inning that he minimized for just one run was the breaking point of the game for us. The kid has unbelievable stuff. Once he started believing in himself, and then confidence, when you see it after that inning, that got us going and got him going.”
Manning marched along the rest of the way, retiring 13 batters in a row. He had picked up two outs in the sixth inning before he made his next mistake: a four-pitch walk to Luis Urias. Pitching coach Chris Fetter, along with Garneau, went to the mound for a visit.
At this point, the Tigers controlled a 3-1 lead.
“(Fetter) didn’t say much in the sixth inning,” Manning said. “Garneau led that one for me, just (telling me to) stay focused, giving me a breather and saying, ‘Don’t veer off the path at all. Let’s attack these guys.'”
That’s exactly what Manning did, turning to an array of pitches to punch out Jace Peterson to complete the 15th start — and seemingly the best one yet — of his MLB career. He finished the job with a slider, which was tipped by Peterson and caught by Garneau for the strikeout.
Manning gave Garneau credit for his work behind the plate. (The Tigers acquired Garneau, a seven-year MLB veteran, from the Colorado Rockies in an August trade.)
“I only shook him one time, and it was the first hit up the middle,” Manning said. “After that, I didn’t shake him at all. He’s very experienced. I love throwing to him. I think we have a good relationship building, and I feel very comfortable when he’s leading the way.”
Following his 15th start, Manning commands a 5.75 ERA, 24 walks and 45 strikeouts over 72 innings in his debut season. Like the experiences of Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal during their first tastes of the big leagues in 2020, Manning is fighting through a learning curve at baseball’s highest level.
Therefore, the goal is simple: The Tigers want Manning to exit the season with plenty to work on over the offseason. They don’t expect him to be perfect, but they need him prepared to help Mize and Skubal lead the starting rotation next year.
“They’re growing up fast, aren’t they?” Hinch said in June.
Throwing 98 pitches to the Brewers, Manning logged 12 swings and misses: four with his four-seam fastball, one with his two-seam fastball, three with his curveball and four with his slider. He mixed in all five of his offerings: four-seamer (40%), two-seamer (30%), curveball (13%), slider (12%) and changeup (5%).
His fastball averaged 94 mph and reached 97 mph.
“When my curveball is working, I have a good feel for everything,” Manning said. “I thought I was a five-pitch pitcher with my sinker, so I thought I could throw anything whenever I wanted to. That’s probably when I’m at my best.”
Before his MLB debut in June, Manning didn’t even throw a two-seam fastball or slider. Those pitches were incorporated into his arsenal by Hinch and Fetter. While his curveball is expected to be his best secondary weapon in the long run, utilizing the slider has helped him navigate opponents when he struggles to command his curveball.
“It’s something I want to really work on a lot more,” Manning said about the development of his curveball. “Building in the slider for me was big to get some separation with my breaking ball pitches. (My curveball is) sometimes inconsistent game-to-game, but these last two games, it’s been there for me when I needed it. I work on it every day.”
On Tuesday, Manning felt like everything — from his go-to fastball to esteemed curveball — was electric coming out of his hand.
And it all started with a confidence boost from what could’ve been an ugly second inning.
“He didn’t try to be too perfect after that,” Hinch said Wednesday. “He just tried to make pitches and get his outs, and he got pretty deep into the game. He’s starting to mature within his outings, which is key. I thought he did a good job of getting into his outing, obviously had a tough second inning and then really finished strong.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.