Why Detroit Tigers’ Matt Manning had the best start of his career: ‘No reason to be afraid’

Detroit Free Press

Javier Báez stole the headlines.

He deserved them, too, after blasting the Detroit Tigers to a 3-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Monday at Comerica Park. The new shortstop crushed a two-run home run in the eighth inning.

The developing pitcher deserves just as much credit.

“He had the command on his fastball,” Báez said. “He was putting it wherever he wanted.”

WHAT HAPPENED: Javier Báez hits clutch late-game home run for 3-1 win over Red Sox

Matt Manning, a 23-year-old right-hander and former top prospect, fired six innings of one-hit, one-run ball in the best start of his career against a premier playoff team. For the Tigers to be successful in 2022, Manning’s evolution into a frontline starter is key.

“There’s no reason to be afraid,” Manning said. “These guys are good, but I think I’m pretty good, too.”

To dispatch the Red Sox, Manning relied on a heavy dose of four-seam fastballs. He used 41 of them — 60% of his pitches — to be exact, averaging 93.7 mph and maxing out at 97.3 mph. The second-year pitcher realized the Red Sox were swinging freely, and since he had no trouble locating his revered four-seamer, he kept his foot on the gas.

Manning has been aggressive in the past.

But never like this.

“He didn’t get scared out of the strike zone,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “Once they looked late (with their swings), he continued to pound fastballs. He spun a few (breaking balls) in there. But he just attacked them.”

A LOOK BACK: What we learned about Tigers in first 3 games of season vs. White Sox

The Tigers pulled Manning once he completed the sixth inning, after throwing 68 pitches (47 strikes) and 13 first-pitch strikes to 19 batters. Had it not been his first outing of the season, fresh off a condensed spring training, Hinch would have sent him back to the mound for the seventh.

The only blemish Manning had occurred in the fifth inning, when Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez, a four-time All-Star, drilled a 2-1 fastball over the wall in left-center field for a solo home run.

“He had some good stuff early on and he kept us off balance and was giving us trouble,” said Martinez, whose homer knotted the game at 1-all. Since the Tigers didn’t score until the bottom of the eighth, Manning took a no decision.

Still, he put the Tigers in a position to win.

“I think it’s an extension of all the work I’ve put in this offseason, in spring training and all the work I’ve done with (pitching coach Chris Fetter),” Manning said. “I just want to keep it rolling for the rest of the season.”

Catcher Tucker Barnhart believes Monday’s outing could be a turning point in his development.

Immediately following Martinez’s home run, Manning faltered with three consecutive balls to Alex Verdugo, but his next three pitches were located within the strike zone. The at-bat ended in a groundout.

“I think Matt went through every kind of situation you could go through in tonight’s game,” Barnhart said. “If he needs to regroup and regain confidence, I think that tonight’s outing is a huge outing for him to put away and go watch when he needs to feel good.”

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Barnhart, traded from the Cincinnati Reds in November, is new to the Tigers, but the two-time Gold Glove winner heard plenty about Manning, as well as Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, upon joining his new team. Hinch and Fetter told him about Manning’s prospect status, four-pitch mix, strong arm and lively fastball.

His rookie year, though, was trial by fire. Manning had an 8.07 ERA in seven starts for Triple-A Toledo in 2021, then a 5.80 ERA in 18 starts for the Tigers. The ninth-overall pick in 2016 made his MLB debut last June.

“I think it’s just another step forward because it’s a continuation of how he finished the season,” Hinch said. “He threw his best fastballs last year at the end of the season against the (Chicago) White Sox.”

Facing the White Sox last October, Manning posted five scoreless innings with a career-high seven strikeouts. He exited the game after 69 pitches; Hinch wanted him to conclude his rookie campaign on a positive note.

“Coming back into competition against a really good team with the Red Sox,” Hinch said, “and being able to stay like that when you’re facing some of the big boys and big names, it’s good to see. Should give him plenty of confidence going into his next game.”

[ Why Casey Mize said he was ‘pulling’ too much vs. White Sox ]

Manning recorded two strikeouts — without a walk — against the Red Sox. He worked into 10 two-strike counts, punching out Rafael Devers (swinging, 96 mph fastball) in the first inning and Xander Bogaerts (foul tip, 96.3 mph fastball) in the fourth inning.

He shut down everyone, besides Martinez in the fifth.

“You look at the hitters he was facing, one, and then two, you look at what he was doing to them in the way that he was attacking them,” Barnhart said. “A lineup like that can really pigeonhole you into throwing strikes in hitters counts, and he was able to get ahead of guys and take advantage of some of their aggressiveness. I thought he was awesome.”

WHAT A RELIEF: Why Drew Hutchison was Tigers’ unsung hero of Opening Day victory

Awesome is one way to describe Manning’s performance, but fearless should be at the top of the list, as he set the foundation for what’s expected to be an improved 2022 season.

Manning is the biggest mystery among the Tigers’ young pitchers.

Soon, that might no longer be the case.

“I came in with a game plan,” Manning said. “And I think I executed it pretty well.”

Contact Evan Petzold 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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