Gipson-Long makes another strong impression with 11 K’s

Detroit Tigers

ANAHEIM — Sawyer Gipson-Long described the scene as surreal last weekend after winning his Major League debut in front of friends and family at Comerica Park. His encore performance produced that same feeling for Tigers fans watching at Angel Stadium or staying up late to watch at home.

The Tigers have a track record of highly touted pitching prospects making their mark early, from Jack Morris to Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello to Michael Fulmer to, more recently, Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize and Matt Manning. Only Morris had put up double-digit strikeouts in one of his first two Major League starts. He fanned 11 Texas Rangers on July 31, 1977, joining little-known Ralph Comstock from 1913.

That small club got a new member on what quickly became a Gipson-Long night for Angels hitters.

Even without Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout, what Gipson-Long did to the Angels’ lineup was fairly remarkable, despite the Halos’ three-run ninth-inning comeback off Alex Lange to leave Gipson-Long with no-decision in an eventual 5-4 Detroit victory. It’s not just that his 11 strikeouts are the most by any Tigers pitcher this season, or that he fanned six of seven batters after Nolan Schanuel’s third-inning homer accounted for his lone run allowed, or that center fielder Matt Vierling was the lone Tigers defender to record a putout through the first four innings.

What made Gipson-Long’s performance so noteworthy, beyond the history, was how he did it, drawing 23 swinging strikes over 82 pitches, with few of them being fastballs. According to Statcast, 51 of his 82 pitches were sliders or changeups. Angels batters swung at 27 of those, and whiffed on 19. They put just two in play.

“The swing-and-miss, that alone, was why he was so dominant,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He had a pretty good slider. When they were trying to sit soft, he would throw fastballs. His changeup was good and bad tonight, but he continued to go where the swings and misses were. Twenty-three is a lot at this level, and especially for it being his second start. To stick with the swings that was getting him to leverage [counts] was pretty awesome to see.”

By contrast, he had just 11 swinging strikes total out of 73 pitches in his Major League debut last Sunday against the White Sox.

The changeup was surprisingly effective for a right-handed pitcher against a largely right-handed lineup. Three of Gipson-Long’s strikeouts came on righty-righty changeups, all of them after Gipson-Long and catcher Carson Kelly made an adjustment following the first trip through the order.

“I think I threw one changeup the first time through the order,” said Gipson-Long, who was one off but still on point. “And then I was throwing it a lot the next couple times. I think for anybody, being able to hide a pitch like that, it’s hard once you bring it back out. That was our game plan going in, get ahead of these guys, throw my best stuff in the zone. If I didn’t have to use a pitch, that’s better for me the second time through.”

Gipson-Long was an unranked prospect until this summer, acquired from the Twins for Michael Fulmer at last year’s Trade Deadline in Al Avila’s last deal as Tigers general manager. He’d posted two games with double-digit strikeouts in his professional career, both 11-strikeout performances two years ago in the Twins system, until he fanned 12 over six scoreless innings last month for Triple-A Toledo.

Gipson-Long, armed with a cutter he had developed in-season at Double-A Erie, struck out 126 batters over 99 2/3 innings this year in the Minors before Manning’s broken foot opened a rotation spot for him in Detroit. He came within one strikeout of matching his pro high Saturday, fanning Zach Neto on his 82nd and final pitch — yes, a righty-righty changeup.

“Don’t mess with the flow,” Kelly said. “Just let him flow and continue to put him in the best position to succeed. He’s done a tremendous job with his preparation. He’s been really, really good.”

Kelly and Gipson-Long will be paired together for his next start next week in Oakland, where he’ll have another chance to build on this September impression. Though late-season stints aren’t always indicative of future results, he’s certainly giving the Tigers something to ponder when they review their pitching depth at season’s end.

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