With shutdown 6th, Manning evokes Tigers legends

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — Matt Manning needed to strand a runner on third and keep the Tigers in a scoreless game, hoping they could muster a base hit off Giants starter Logan Webb. He went at LaMonte Wade Jr. like he was pitching with a six-run lead — three fastballs in the zone at 95+ miles per hour, the last of which Wade hit for an easy fly ball to center fielder Riley Greene for the final out.

When Manning stepped back on the mound for the next inning, he really did have a six-run lead. Detroit’s offense had supported him with its best inning this season. Manning responded with his own.

“They gave me a cushion,” Manning said. “I didn’t want to waste it.”

As encouraging as the Tigers’ sudden hit parade was in Wednesday’s 6-1 win over the Giants, which allowed Detroit to salvage a two-game and season series split, the shutdown inning Manning provided afterwards was arguably the more encouraging sign. The right-hander has shown signs of growing into a front-line starter ever since he returned from his shoulder rehab armed with a wipeout slider. On Wednesday, he pitched like an ace.

“He escaped issues early and really finished strong,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “That’s about as strong of a finish as you can have.”

Manning’s shutdown sixth inning evoked memories of a decade ago, when Detroit’s rotation boasted Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. With a newfound lead, Manning gave the middle of San Francisco’s order no glimmer of a chance to slug the Giants back into the game, striking out the side.

“Those innings are kind of hard to get back out there and refocus right away,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit of time for a guy to get back locked in because he sat for so long. But he had the ability to kind of shut down the game right there.”

After taking a first-pitch fastball for a ball, Wilmer Flores saw three consecutive sliders — one for a called strike, another fouled off, the last off the plate as he chased.

Joc Pederson, who had singled and doubled off Manning in his previous two at-bats, took three consecutive balls and essentially dared Manning not to walk him. Manning caught the inner part of the strike zone with a 92 mph fastball, did the same on the outside corner, then spotted the slider for a called strike three at the bottom of the zone.

“We had struggled all series with how to get him out,” Barnhart said. “We got to the same count [3-2] that we did in his first at-bat, where he hit a fastball. And instead of throwing the fastball that he hit in the first at-bat, we threw a beautiful backdoor slider that finished down in the middle of the plate and just kind of locked him up. He clearly wasn’t looking for it.”

Up came Evan Longoria, who had struck out on fastballs in his first two at-bats after being set up on sliders. Manning, sensing his finish, started him off with two more fastballs. Longoria swung through the 93 mph heater up in the zone, but took the next one just low. 

Instead of sticking with fastballs, Manning threw back-to-back sliders in the zone. Longoria swung through them both for Manning’s career-best eighth strikeout.

“Really, it felt like that was the game right there,” Barnhart said. “We got six runs and he was able to come out and shut the door pretty quickly. It was really impressive.”

It’s hard to overestimate what the slider has done for Manning’s long-term prospects. He drew not only 12 of his 16 swings and misses off it, but also eight called strikes. The pitch finished five of his eight strikeouts.

“I can throw it in the zone, out of the zone,” Manning said. “It’s a good pitch that I can throw hard and it looks like my fastball.”

Not since Michael Fulmer’s four-hit shutout at Texas during his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2016 had a Tiger tossed six or more scoreless innings with no walks and eight or more strikeouts.

Manning is also the fifth Tigers starter since 2000 to allow 10 runs or fewer in his first seven games of a season, a list that includes Verlander (nine runs in 2013), Scherzer (nine in 2014), Jordan Zimmermann (10 in 2016) and Matthew Boyd (10 last year).

“It’s just nice to see him walk off the mound with a lot of confidence,” Hinch said. “He’s pitching well from the get-go, and I think he knows it. It’s a good vibe around him right now.”

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