Manning makes long-awaited return to rotation

Detroit Tigers

MINNEAPOLIS — Matt Manning joked Monday that he felt like he was “debuting all over again” as he prepared for his first start since mid-April. So it was understandable if Tuesday felt like a reintroduction.

As he stood on the mound on a hot August night at Target Field, trying to silence a Twins lineup that has tormented the Tigers, he finally felt in his element again, even if he needed to shake out a few nerves to settle in.

“For the first time back since early in the season, it felt pretty good,” he said after five innings in the Tigers’ 5-3 win. “There’s nothing like playing some big league baseball.”

This is what the Tigers’ season is about now that the Trade Deadline has passed. After days of pitchers being showcased and veterans on display in front of scouts, it’s time for Detroit to pick up the pieces of a frustrating season and focus on its own needs toward 2023. Getting the rotation back in order is near the top of the list, and Manning is a huge part of that.

The Tigers have two goals for Manning: Build innings, and build experience. He needs the innings to go into next season without limits. He needs the experience to go into next season with more polish.

“Every time he’s on the field, he’s getting better and better,” catcher Eric Haase said. “It’s just a matter of keeping these young guys healthy, getting game experience. Obviously, 20 games below .500, we’re not making a playoff push right now, but still going out there getting those innings, you’re going to learn.

“When things are a little bit better, we’re hoping, then he’ll have that experience and know how to make adjustments in games that really mean something down the stretch.”

Manning was one of the first rotation injuries that sent the Tigers down a spiral that led to 15 different starters being used this season. He and Casey Mize had issues after starts on back-to-back days — forearm for Mize, shoulder for Manning — landing them on the injured list. Neither was expected to be out for an extended stretch, but then both had issues when they started rehabbing.

Mize eventually underwent Tommy John surgery, sidelining him until late next season at best. Fellow first-round Draft pick Alex Faedo is scheduled for season-ending hip surgery this month. By the start of summer, Tarik Skubal was the last member of Detroit’s season-opening rotation still healthy, and the rotation around him was a hodgepodge of rookies and fill-ins.

One night after Skubal’s arm fatigue made him the Tigers’ latest young arm to go down, Manning provided a badly needed example of somebody making it back.

“We’re going to be cautious with him just because he’s coming off an injury,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “We want him to have success. He battled himself quite a bit tonight. We’ll ease him in as he goes. I’ll pay attention to extra rest, or no extra rest. He’s a young pitcher but also still a developing pitcher. We’ll handle him accordingly.”

Manning’s nerves were evident in the early innings. He walked three of his first 11 batters, four for the game, and put the leadoff batter on base in four of his five innings. His fastball command was spotty, and his velocity was down a tick, neither of which was surprising.

“He may have been just as nervous as he was for his debut,” Hinch said. “He looked a little bit jumpy early and was spraying the ball a little bit. He settled in. He’s pretty hard on himself, but it was just nice to see him navigate the lineup.”

The slider that got him out of jams was new. It’s not what he used before his shoulder injury, and it drew four of the five swings and misses he recorded, including consecutive pitches to strike out Jorge Polanco with runners on first and second in a two-run third inning.

“I tweaked the slider a little bit while I was coming back and I got a lot of horizontal movement on it, so I like where that’s at,” Manning said. “That was one thing I knew [while rehabbing]: If I can figure out my slider, it was going to be a good weapon for me.”

Look for the command to improve with repetitions, and the curveball and changeup to work in.

“I think it’s going to be a little buildup, get the rust off and finish these two months strong,” Manning said.

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