PHILADELPHIA — Four consecutive knuckle-curveballs.
Nick Maton wasn’t surprised when his former teammate, Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola, threw him those four breaking balls in a row with two outs and two runners in scoring position in the seventh inning Monday. The first three went for strikes — two fouls and a whiff.
But the fourth hung around the top of the strike zone, and, a few seconds later, landed in the second deck of Citizens Bank Park for a three-run homer.
“It’s no joke, everybody knows what they’re going to throw me,” said Maton, who is in his first season with the Detroit Tigers and his third season in the big leagues. “I was able to get to it. I feel like I’ve been seeing it a lot better over these past couple weeks, as far as the curveballs and offspeeds. I’ll keep on working.”
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The Tigers lost, 8-3, but Maton’s home run broke up Nola’s no-hitter. The nine-year MLB veteran, who finished fourth in National League Cy Young voting last season, came seven outs away from completing a historic accomplishment.
Until Maton stopped Nola in his tracks.
“He’s a super-good dude and took care of all the young guys over there,” Maton said. “I got to know him very, very well. I was pumped he left me one up there and I was able to get to it.”
It’s unexpected, though, that Maton broke up Nola’s no-hitter by hitting a breaking ball 408 feet. His first five home runs this season came off fastballs, as have 16 of his 25 hits this season.
This season, Maton is hitting .162 with a .286 on-base percentage in 55 games.
“We need him to get going,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said Monday. “I think it was emotional for him coming back and seeing a lot of friends and getting his (NL championship) ring. We need him to do exactly what he did tonight. It was a good walk; it was a good homer at an opportune time.”
Simply put, Maton struggles to hit breaking balls with a .132 batting average, and offspeed pitches (.087), compared to .205 against fastballs. He has a 42.5% whiff rate on breakers and a 50.8% whiff rate on offspeed pitches.
The 26-year-old third baseman couldn’t hit those pitch types with the Phillies in the 2021-22 seasons (216 plate appearances) either, but the issue has become more glating because of increased playing time with the Tigers in 2023 (182 plate appearances). Opposing pitchers, for the most part, have refused to throw him fastballs.
The reality of the situation forced him to work on his approach.
“First off, I got to get the ones that I’m able to hit,” Maton said of non-fastballs. “They don’t throw me very many that are in the zone because I feel like they’d rather walk me than give me a cookie like that. When they are in the zone, being able to not be too ahead of myself and staying through the middle of the field. That’s the main thing.”
Over the past 18 games, dating back to May 16, Maton has been better, posting an above-average 111 wRC+, compared to his 72 wRC+ for the entire season. He is hitting an underwhelming .186 during the 18-game stretch, but he has increased his walk rate (23.2%) and decreased his strikeout rate (21.4%).
The solution was to stop swinging as often: His swing rate has decreased from 45.9% before May 16 to 41.2% after May 16.
“He’s very aware of what guys are trying to do to him,” Hinch said. “That being said, you have to hit the fastball. There were some fastballs he was late on in Chicago, there were a couple that got by him (Monday). You don’t want to rush the other side of only hunting pitches that you have historically not always hit. He’s a fastball hitter, and he will always be a fastball hitter.”
Hinch issued a warning after Maton’s home run off a breaking ball in Monday’s loss. He doesn’t want the left-handed hitter to begin fixating on non-fastballs.
Rather, Hinch wants Maton to stay aggressive on fastballs while laying off secondary pitches.
So far, finding the balance has been a new challenge.
Maton — serving as the cleanup hitter — swung at a first-pitch curveball in the second inning for a flyout in Tuesday’s 1-0 loss. He swung at a second-pitch splitter for a flyout in the fourth inning, then a first-pitch cutter for a flyout in the sixth inning. Finally, he fell behind in the count by whiffing at a first-pitch knuckle-curve before striking out on a fourth-pitch fastball in the ninth.
“It doesn’t mean that he needs to swing at every breaking ball or every first-pitch offspeed,” Hinch said, “but it’s nice to see some production.”
Carpenter starts in outfield
Outfielder Kerry Carpenter (right shoulder sprain) has played eight games during his rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo, all as the designated hitter. The 25-year-old started in the outfield Wednesday for the first time in his ninth game with the Mud Hens.
He played right field.
In his first eight games, Carpenter hit .161 with one home run, five walks and 11 strikeouts. Playing the outfield opens the door for his return to the Tigers. He threw from the outfield to different bases before Tuesday’s game.
Right-hander Franklin Pérez, acquired by the Tigers as a top prospect from the Houston Astros in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade, pitched as a reliever Tuesday in his first game of the season in the Florida Complex League.
The 25-year-old, who has suffered several injuries in his career, allowed three runs on three hits and three walks with one strikeout. He threw 26 pitches across the seventh and eighth innings.
Pérez gave up a two-run home run to Edinson Duran, a 20-year-old catcher from the New York Yankees, in the seventh inning. He issued three walks, plus an RBI single, in the eighth inning.