Manning’s one-run gem gives hope for future

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — The final pitch Matt Manning threw with a runner on base Friday night came against Shohei Ohtani, with a man on first and two outs in the fifth inning. The Tigers right-hander had pitched Ohtani carefully since making his big league debut against the Angels last year, but on this occasion, he went after him.

After putting Ohtani in an 0-2 count, Manning tried to put him away with back-to-back sliders. The first was down and in the dirt, and Ohtani watched it bounce. The second was high and out of the zone, and Ohtani chased it for strike three.

“It’s nice to see him go into attack mode, man,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “That was impressive stuff.”

It was a rare high slider from Manning, and it wasn’t necessarily on purpose.

“I threw some honestly bad sliders to Ohtani,” Manning said. “I was just lucky to get out of it.”

Even in the 1-0 defeat, Manning could smile about it after retiring 13 of his final 14 hitters on his way to seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball. He was outdueled by Angels starter Patrick Sandoval in a four-hit shutout, but he took another step toward becoming the latest of Detroit’s young starters to blossom into a front-line starter.

Though the Tigers’ 17th shutout loss of the season was their first 1-0 defeat since Sept. 18, 2020, it still followed the general pattern of the 2022 season: Detroit pitchers provide a chance but Tigers hitters can’t take advantage. Considering how many different names have been on the pitching side of the theme, it’s actually encouraging.

While even the hardiest Tigers fan might have a hard time naming all the starters they’ve used since the All-Star break (Manning, Tarik Skubal, Garrett Hill, Michael Pineda, Drew Hutchison, Bryan Garcia, Tyler Alexander, Daniel Norris), their collective 3.09 ERA in that span is the lowest among American League rotations and third lowest in the Majors. Given Detroit’s 8-21 record during that span, it can be depressing to think how much better the Tigers could be with a little more offense.

And yet, as the Tigers try to find a path forward next season, it’s a sliver of hope just how much starting pitching the Tigers have to work with. Even without Skubal, Pineda, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo, Beau Brieske and Eduardo Rodriguez (who returns Sunday), the Tigers continue to pitch stingy.

There’s more. With Norris and Hill in the bullpen, other young starters are expected to get opportunities down the stretch, including Elvin Rodriguez and Joey Wentz. Spencer Turnbull will be back from Tommy John surgery in the spring. No. 9 prospect Reese Olson and No. 17 prospect Austin Bergner should knock on the door going into next season; both will be added to the 40-man roster. No. 3 prospect Wilmer Flores shouldn’t be far behind. No. 4 prospect Ty Madden is already at Double-A in his first pro season.

“Before I got here, we raved about the pitching depth that we have,” Hinch said. “If we get this right, it’s going to be built on the pitching side. You have to play the whole game, but it’s certainly encouraging to see other guys get opportunities and do it.”

Manning is particularly encouraging. The former first-round Draft pick, who had been a high-contact, low-strikeout pitcher before shoulder soreness sidelined him, has come back as an aggressive, high-strikeout, potential front-line starter. Just as Skubal stepped up to front Detroit’s rotation after Mize was sidelined with elbow issues and Rodriguez went on the restricted list, Manning has a chance to do the same in Skubal’s absence.

“I’m lonely without these guys, these other guys that I’ve been with coming through the system, basically growing up,” Manning said. “Coming out of the game, Skubs texted me. It stinks that they’re not here, but I’m just trying to put up good performances for this team.”

The slider, a pitch that Manning developed while rehabbing his shoulder earlier this summer, has transformed his game. With sharper movement and more deception than his old breaking ball, it’s the swing-and-miss pitch he has sought since last year. It accounted for seven of his 12 swings and misses Friday.

Add in a jump in fastball velocity his last couple of starts, and Manning looks more like the 2019 Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He has enough of a feel to work up and down in the strike zone, not just in and out.

“Matt Manning is a legit Major League pitcher,” Hinch said, “and we’re seeing it showcased right now. Tonight, he was electric.”

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