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Unshakable faith: Tigers' Boyd looks past frustration, focuses on progress

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Chicago — Matthew Boyd sat in front of the Zoom camera Monday night, preparing to take questions from the media a few hours after he’d departed the Tigers’ 7-2 loss to the White Sox. He had time to process his rather manic four innings of work, had time to put it in perspective, had time to sort and codify the pluses and minuses.

And even though the outing was fatally inefficient early and included three balls that left the yard, it was by his own measure his best and most encouraging outing of this bizarre year. But as he was sitting there awaiting the first question, he knew he couldn’t and shouldn’t say that — not after he played a key role in his team’s sixth straight loss.

“I’m not going to sit up here and be all sunshine and rainbows,” he said. “We lost 7-2 and I gave up three runs. If I went nine innings and gave up three runs, that’s still one too many.”

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Later, it was almost like Boyd was imploring reporters to look beyond the two 33-pitch innings, to look beyond the three solo home runs, two to American League batting champ Tim Anderson.

“You guys write the stories, right?” he said. “There was a lot of progress if you look in the right direction. There are still things I need to get better at and I intend to. But this was a step in the right direction. You guys write the story and decipher what you want to from that.”

Tigers starter Matthew Boyd gave up four hits, including three solo home runs, and struck out nine over four innings in Monday's loss.

Start with this: When Boyd tried to explain why he’s started the season so out of whack, entering his age-29 season and coming off a 238-strikeout season in 2019, he talked about chasing metrics. He talked about how he tweaked his mechanics hoping to squeeze a few more RPMs of spin on his four-seam fastball and subsequently boost its ride through the zone.

Instead of making his already good four-seam fastball great, he actually lost vertical break and messed up his mechanics.

What we didn’t know, and what he wouldn’t say publicly because he knew it would sound like an excuse, was that he nursed a tight hamstring all through summer camp. Messing around with what were perfectly sound mechanics, and then battling a tight hamstring through an accelerated three-week camp after a three-month shutdown — not a recipe for success.

The raw numbers through five starts are brutal: He leads the American League in losses (three), earned runs (25), home runs allowed (eight) and has the worst ERA of all qualified starting pitchers (9.64). Focusing on that, though, and you ignore what is also true — he’s been better in each start, and on Monday night looked like himself (in stretches) for the first time all year.

“The first two at-bats is what I was really frustrated about,” Boyd said, yielding back-to-back home runs for the second straight start against the White Sox. “I didn’t have the same finish on my fastball. But I made the adjustment and got right to it. We got more efficient as we went on.

“Obviously you put yourself in a hole when you throw 66 pitches in the first two innings — a big hole for everybody. I need to be more efficient. But there was progress today.”

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Of the 12 outs he recorded, nine were strikeouts. He got 16 swings and misses on 48 swings, and significantly, 11 swings and misses on 23 swings at his slider. He mixed in eight changeups in his final two innings and got three whiffs and two weak-contact outs.

“Anytime you get (11) swings and misses with the slider and nine strikeouts, you are doing something right in the game,” he said. “You don’t just fall into that. We made a few adjustments (between starts). Staying with my posture (not hunching in his delivery), keeping my weight back on my heel and staying on top and through the ball so it comes out of the tunnel the right way.”

The average exit velocity on the eight balls the White Sox put in play — just eight balls put in play — was 86 mph. Besides the three home runs, he allowed just one other hit. These are positives.

But, 66 pitches in two innings, 90 pitches through four — that’s problematic, especially for a Tigers team that just added two rookies to a rotation that uses Michael Fulmer essentially as an opener. The bullpen can’t sustain the workload it’s being forced to carry right now.

“The game is going to happen, there’s going to be long at-bats, you just do the best you can to mitigate that and get early contact and early outs when it’s possible,” Boyd said. “The big key with that is getting ahead in counts.”

He didn’t do that enough. But, also, a throwing error by Willi Castro extended his pitch count in the first inning, as did a 10-pitch walk to Edwin Encarnacion and the nine-pitch war with Anderson. And, as he admitted after, mixing in more changeups earlier in the game might have shortened some of those long battles.

“We established the fastball the first time through the order and we went with the changeup after that,” Boyd said. “There were a few instances the first time through where I could’ve thrown the changeup, but what made the changeup good is that we established the fastball early on and what made the slider good was we established the fastball early on.”

Nothing that has happened in these five most uncharacteristic starts has shaken Boyd’s faith or confidence in himself. Nothing that happened Monday night made him doubt that real progress was made. He said he felt after the first two hitters, he pitched better than he had in any outing over the last two years mainly because of the way he used all his pitches.

And that unwavering self-belief, coupled with his relentless commitment to being the greatest version of himself, it’s hard to think Boyd won’t turn this whole season around in the seven or so starts he has left.

“There was a lot of good,” he said. “It wasn’t good enough to win the ballgame, but I’m telling you, we’re getting better every single day. Mark my words. I’m going to be better than I ever was before.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky