Challenged by Hinch, Manning proves his mettle

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — Like many Major League teams, the Tigers have a box in their clubhouse where players can donate gear and equipment for Minor Leaguers. Among the items in the box on Sunday was a T-shirt featuring the likeness of former Tigers starter Matthew Boyd, who once pleaded for another inning with then-manager Ron Gardenhire by telling him, “This is what I train for. I was programmed for this.”

Gardenhire, as he liked to do, put Boyd’s quote on a T-shirt, one of many things he did to keep a young Tigers team loose during his first season as Detroit manager in 2018.

Matt Manning, so far as we know, has delivered no such quotes since joining the Tigers’ rotation last summer. But his work Sunday, difficult as it might have been to recognize in an eventual 7-0 loss to the Rays, was a statement in itself.

Before Tampa Bay pulled away with a seven-run ninth inning that included a pair of bases-loaded walks from closer Gregory Soto, Manning was locked in a scoreless duel for seven innings. The seventh was a vote of confidence from manager A.J. Hinch in a situation where he had gone to his bullpen one night earlier.

On Saturday, Hinch pulled Garrett Hill with two outs in the sixth inning of an effective start and turned to Alex Lange to throw sinkers and curveballs at No. 9 hitter Yu Chang, who has struggled against breaking balls all season and fanned on Lange’s curveball Saturday. On Sunday, Hinch had Lange warming again with Chang looming, this time with a runner on in the seventh.

Hinch stuck with Manning, who recovered from a leadoff single by retiring the bottom of the Rays’ lineup in order. Chang stepped to the plate with two outs and got a first-pitch fastball to attack, but flew out to center to end the Rays’ threat and punctuate the best outing of Manning’s career. Manning is the third Tigers starter to toss seven scoreless innings this season. Tarik Skubal did it twice. Beau Brieske did it once.

“To protect him, I could’ve taken him out after six,” Hinch acknowledged. “But I walk that line of challenging him, and also, he was in complete control of the at-bats and the innings. We’re at a good part of the order for him. And he just went out and cruised through seven.”

That’s a big deal for Manning, who until Sunday had never thrown a pitch in the seventh inning of a Major League game. Though he was a durable starter in the Minors in 2018 and 2019, he hasn’t publicly pleaded for more innings. During Sunday’s outing, he said, it was important for him to give the bullpen a hand.

“They’ve been working their tails off,” Manning said.

For similar reasons, it’s a big deal for the Tigers. Short term, Detroit needs innings from any starter who can provide them while workhorse Skubal is on the injured list with elbow fatigue. Long term, the Tigers need to identify who can be counted on to provide effective innings and deep outings alongside Skubal for next year and beyond.

That’s why, even with Manning making just his second big league start since shoulder soreness derailed his season in mid-April, the Tigers aren’t nursing him along. The more innings he can provide down the stretch, the less they’ll have to limit him next year, an idea that sounds counterintuitive but is based on percentage increases in innings delivered from year to year. Manning made it easy by throwing just 95 pitches through seven.

“It’s nice to have a starting pitcher throw seven, and it’s OK,” Hinch said. “That’s an excellent job by him, continuing to put up zeros and giving our offense a chance to try to break through.”

Manning’s seven strikeouts tied a career high from his finale last season, and provided a reminder of the pitcher who averaged 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings on his way through the Minors. His 13 swings and misses from Rays hitters were spread across his five-pitch arsenal. His slider, a pitch he polished during his rehab program in Florida, provided four whiffs, same as his changeup. His fastball and slider provided 14 called strikes.

He struck out Rays outfielder Jose Siri twice on sliders, then the third time, used the slider to set up a fastball for a called third strike.

“I would like to be a little sharper early, cut down on the walks a little bit,” Manning said. “But when I had two strikes and I needed to make a pitch, I did. When there was a runner on first, I did.”

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