Detroit – Everything seemed normal.
Matt Manning completed his pregame warmup and bullpen session Wednesday night ahead of his scheduled start against the Royals. He walked back into the dugout surrounded by catcher Eric Haase and pitching coach Chris Fetter and slapped hands with the bullpen pitchers as they crossed paths.
Just like always.
Then, in a blink, right-handed reliever Will Vest was hurriedly warming up in the bullpen. Fetter ran out to home plate where manager AJ Hinch was exchanging lineup cards and ground rules with the umpires.
Nothing is ever normal for this baseball team. Not this year.
“Matty sat down on the bench and he reported he had some fatigue, that he wasn’t feeling right,” Hinch said. “As soon as you use those terms we decided to scratch him. No way were we going to put him out there when he’s not feeling right.”
Hinch said tests confirmed the fatigue and some tendonitis in Manning’s forearm area. His season is over.
“I was warming up and it didn’t feel quite right,” Manning said. “We had the weather (56 degrees) but it never really loosened up. After a few pitches I felt it wasn’t normal. Just a precaution. With the position we’re in, I’m looking more toward 2023 and not wanting to rush anything and make it any worse than it could be.
“I’m definitely disappointed. I really wanted to finish the year strong with these last two starts. But given the big picture and what we’re looking for in 2023, I felt it was just smarter to push the brakes.”
Instead of Manning making his next to last start of the season, Hinch threw an impromptu bullpen party. And somehow the Tigers pulled it off.
The Royals put at least two runners on base in six of the nine innings, leaving the bases loaded twice, as the Tigers extended their winning streak to five with a 2-1 win at Comerica Park.
“It was really nice that each guy did their part,” Hinch said. “Eight scoreless innings is hard to come by when you are trying to piece together the matchups and get to the finish line with enough pitching.”
Vest, making the first start of not only his professional career but his baseball life, was greeted with a leadoff home run by MJ Melendez but got through the his one and only inning stranding two more runners.
“It was a little different,” Vest said with a smile. “Usually you have more time (to get ready). But that’s the territory of a bullpen guy. You’ve got to be ready at all times. It’s not ideal and it’s definitely not good when a starter goes down like that.
“But you just have to try to get your three outs.”
Miguel Cabrera countered with a two-run home run in the bottom of the first. He barreled up a slider from Royals lefty starter Daniel Lynch and hit it 411 feet over the fence in left-center field. It was his fifth homer of the season (507th of his career) and his first since July 15.
“It feels good,” Cabrera said. “After I came back from the injured list I started to swing better and swing more free. Hopefully I can keep my biceps strong and my knees strong and make better swings at home plate and try to make something happen.”
The bullpen made that skinny lead stand up, despite a fleet of Royals baserunners.
“That’s big-time,” Vest said. “It’s not what you want, to scratch the starter right before the game, but it’s a testament to the bullpen for being able to go out and get a win out of it.”
Daniel Norris and Garrett Hill each pitched two scoreless innings. Norris, who got the win, has now pitched six straight scoreless innings this month, allowing one hit with no walks and seven strikeouts.
“We love D-No,” Hinch said. “Getting him back in the strike zone has been good. He’s more confident now than we might’ve expected coming out of the situation he was in earlier. I think there is a lot of belief in D-No.”
The single Norris yielded to Kyle Isbel in the second inning was the first hitter to reach base against him since Sept. 9. And he was promptly erased trying to steal second on a strong throw by catcher Eric Haase and an even better tag by Javier Báez.
Báez’s lightning-quick hands nabbed Isbel trying to steal again in the eighth.
“Incredible,” Hinch said. “Those are elite of the elite plays. I don’t know how many guys can pull that off but I know who the best is and we got him. He made some critical plays in a one-run game.”
Hill had to work out of trouble in both his innings. He punched out Isbel with two on in the fourth and Vinnie Pasquantino (on three pitches) with two on in the fifth.
Jose Cisnero needed help getting out of the sixth. He gave up a single and walked two batters. With the bases-loaded and two outs, and left-handed hitting Melendez coming up, Hinch summoned lefty Andrew Chafin.
It took Cisnero 28 pitches to create the mess. It took Chafin one pitch to clean it up. He got Melendez to ground out to second base.
He’d need a lot more (16) to get out of the seventh. The Royals loaded the bases again with one out, but Chafin got a clutch strikeout of Hunter Dozier and retired Drew Waters on a ground out.
At that point the Royals were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and stranded 12.
“The game will dictate a little bit of where you go,” Hinch said on how he pieced together his bullpen choices to matchup against a Royals lineup that featured five left-handed hitters and one switch-hitter. “We’re trying to stretch some guys and still try to win the game. Those are fun in the sense of strategy and trying to matchup the best you can with their lineup.
“But they’re also nerve-wracking because one base hit along the way and it’s a tie game and we’re running out of pitching and (starter) Tyler Alexander is probably going to put his spikes on.”
Didn’t have to get that far. Alex Lange got through the eighth, though he gave up a single to Isbel (thrown out at second) and walked Melendez. And closer Gregory Soto finished it off in style, with a clean ninth, posting his 29th save.
Manning, who missed three months with shoulder inflammation, made just 12 starts this season, throwing 63 innings in the big-leagues and another 22 in rehab starts.
“The strides I made this year have been great,” he said. “No one is going to work harder than me this offseason to get my body in a position to where I can handle a full 162 and beyond.”