Detroit — Here we are on the dim outskirts of Major League relevancy, far from the glare of any type of playoff race. Two teams with big aspirations coming into the season that have been similarly wracked by injuries and underperformance.
The Tigers and visiting Los Angeles Angels again reduced to playing out the string and realigning hopes and dreams for next season.
What are you going to do except enjoy a baseball game on its own merits, independent of any larger context?
Not hard to do given the star power of the Angels – Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout hitting 1-2 in their order – and the brilliance of Tigers’ starter Matt Manning.
Even if the Tigers’ offense gave the large iFiesta Tigre crowd of 28,197 nothing to cheer about, succumbing to lefty Patrick Sandoval, who pitched a complete-game shutout in the Angels’ 1-0 victory in the first of three games at Comerica Park.
The Tigers have been shutout a MLB-leading 17 times.
“Matt Manning is a legitimate big-league pitcher and we’re seeing it showcased right now,” Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch said. “What he’s doing now and how he finished last year speaks for itself. Tonight he was electric. His stuff was good across the board.”
Manning breezed through the Angels’ lineup, going seven innings in 90 pitches, allowing one run and three hits with six strikeouts.
“He had plenty left in the tank at the end,” Hinch said. “I could’ve sent him back out for the eighth. It was just nice to see him go into attack mode, man. That was impressive stuff.
“He’s someone we’re building around.”
Manning was featuring a lively four-seam fastball (which was touching 97 mph), a well-spotted a two-seamer and a dirty and diverse slider. He was effectively changing speeds and locations with the slider. The velocity range on the pitch was 81 to 86 mph.
“I lost my slider last start but I found it in the third inning and just started ripping it,” Manning said. “That was one of the big things we worked on between starts, trying to work the slider out of the zone, back in the zone, up, down, changing eye levels.
“It’s a big thing I have to keep in mind and keep working on so I’m not just feeding balls into the middle.”
He struck out Ohtani to end the fifth with three sliders, all at different speeds – 83 mph swinging strike one, 81 mph in the dirt after getting ahead 0-2 with a 95-mph heater, then getting the punch-out with an elevated slider at 85 mph.
That last pitch, though, might’ve been a happy accident.
“I threw some bad sliders to Ohtani,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “I was lucky to get away with that. It ended up being a rise ball or something. I don’t know what that was.”
Trout, making first start back off the injured list, led off the sixth and Manning punched him out on four pitches. He started him off with two sliders, then got whiffs on back-to-back four-seamers at 92 mph.
“Definitely can get a little nervous,” he said of facing Ohtani and Trout. “You think twice before you stick a two-seamer in on Trout. But it was great, honestly. That’s what I was looking forward to the most once I heard he was back off the IL.
“As a young player, it’s great experience to face guys like that.”
The only mistake was the 1-0 changeup he left in the middle of the plate that Jared Walsh smoked on a line just inside the foul pole in right. Manning threw just one other changeup in the game.
“He’s learning and he’s trying to pitch to a game plan,” Hinch said. “And he’s trying to stay aggressive with it. The reality of his outing is one changeup stayed out over the plate and a pretty good home run hitter hit a ball down the line for a homer.
“If that’s your only mistake in a seven-inning outing with Ohtani and Trout in the lineup, that’s a pretty good outcome.”
Manning finished his night by dispatching 13 of the last 14 batters.
“Disappointing that the guy over there (Sandoval) outpitched me,” Manning said. “I wanted to go back out for the eighth but coming off the injury I’m just glad to get as many innings as I can under my belt.”
The Tigers’ hitters had an awful time with Sandoval. He was masterful, primarily mixing four pitches between 79 and 93 mph. A four-seamer that stayed mostly up in the zone, changeups and sliders that moved in opposite directions and a two-seamer he was busting in on the hands of right-handed hitters.
Missing barrels with all of them.
“We couldn’t get the ball off the ground, we couldn’t elevate him,” Hinch said. “His slider was down, his sinker was down, his changeup has always been good. If you can’t get the ball off the ground and into the air, it’s really hard to put multiple hits together.”
He allowed four hits, all singles and induced 12 ground ball outs. Three of those were turned into double-plays. The Tigers didn’t move a runner into scoring position. He also struck out nine.
Sandoval faced just 28 hitters, one over the minimum and completed the game in 97 pitches.
“He was good, obviously, and we had a hard time creating any pressure,” Hinch said. “He’s a good pitcher and he’s having a nice year. But you’d like to put a little more pressure on him, especially the way our guy was pitching.”