DETROIT — The massive shrubs beyond center field make the vast expanse of Comerica Park’s outfield all the more imposing, but there’s a small gap in right-center where the shrubs end and the giant wall that houses the out-of-town scoreboard begins. For hitters, it might as well be the fictional “South Detroit” that Journey sings about in the song “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Nobody hits a ball that far into that little crevice in what might be the deepest part of Comerica Park. Some have hit the wall to the right of it and bemoaned a 430-foot double or triple.
Not only did Seattle’s Ty France hit that tiny cranny between the shrubs and the wall, he hit it off a Matt Manning slider, a pitch that had never before yielded a homer against the Tigers right-hander. The 438-foot opposite-field drive was a rarity, and a bad sign for Manning’s Tuesday evening in the Tigers’ 9-3 loss.
The slider has been key to Manning’s emergence as a front-line starter since his return from the injured list a month ago. It was his project during his rehab from shoulder soreness at the Tigers’ Spring Training facility, and the swing-and-miss pitch he had been seeking since breaking into the big leagues last summer.
The Mariners swung at plenty of Manning sliders on Tuesday, and they didn’t miss.
“He left some breaking balls up,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He’s a young guy, he’s got a really good arm and he has had some good outings early in his career here, but we were on some breaking balls early, kind of like the get-me-overs on the first pitch.”
Manning retired Seattle’s first four batters before France crushed a first-pitch slider to South Detroit. An inning later, Manning had Cal Raleigh in an 0-2 count before leaving a slider over the plate that Raleigh sent deep to right for a solo homer and a 2-0 lead. Two batters later, Julio Rodríguez ripped a full-count hanging slider into the left-field corner at 111.5 mph for a double.
Manning had allowed just five hits off his slider entering Tuesday, and had a 47-percent swing-and-miss rate with it according to Statcast. On Tuesday, Seattle hitters swung at 11 of Manning’s 18 sliders and missed only once. The six they put in play had an average exit velocity of 100 mph.
Manning’s sliders had about four fewer inches of vertical break than his season average, according to Statcast. The sliders were flat, but the launch angles Mariners hitters put on them were not.
“I don’t think the shape was as consistent as it usually is,” Manning said. “I wasn’t getting enough movement on it, and I think I just threw some over the plate too much. … It’s just one of those things where it got a little flat. They weren’t bad sliders by any means, but it just caught too much plate.”
Rodríguez’s double and an ensuing mound visit from pitching coach Chris Fetter led Manning to shelve the slider. His fastball was enough to strike out Jesse Winker for his first and only out of the inning. But his curveball was dropping five inches less than usual, according to Statcast, and hung up for back-to-back RBI singles by Mitch Haniger and former Tigers prospect Eugenio Suárez.
“I think if I had commanded the fastball a little bit better on the inside, I could’ve got away with some stuff,” Manning said. “But in my opinion, I think they were sitting offspeed and reacting to fastballs.”
“I don’t think he executed many pitches tonight,” said manager A.J. Hinch.
Manning’s 2 1/3 innings marked the earliest non-injury exit of his Major League career. His seven runs allowed are the third-most of his career, and two more than he’d allowed over his previous four starts and 25 innings combined.
“We caught a good team on a good day,” Manning said. “They’re a good hitting team. I have to be able to pitch well against teams like that if I want to be the pitcher I want to be.”
While Manning’s breaking stuff was flat and his fastball command wasn’t good, his velocity and spin rates were actually up. So despite his shoulder issues from earlier in the season, the Tigers and Manning are willing to chalk it up to a rough night when he just didn’t have it. Still, it demonstrates how important the slider is for him. He’ll get another chance Sunday against the Royals to try to get it back.