Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — It was the 15th pitch of the at-bat.
Braves hitter Tyler Flowers had fouled off nine straight pitches. With the count full, Tigers starter Mike Fiers threw a breaking ball that bounced, startlingly, 15 feet in front of the plate.
Tigers’ trainers and pitching coach Chris Bosio hustled to the mound to make sure Fiers was OK.
“He threw a curve ball that about hit himself in the foot,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “So yeah, we thought we better go look at him.”
Fiers’ pride might have stung a bit, but his arm was fine.
“That’s how bad that pitch was,” Fiers said, sheepishly. “You’d have thought I was injured on that pitch. I don’t think I ever threw a pitch like that before.”
He managed to survive the three-run, 35-pitch first inning, but it’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day for him.
“I haven’t pitched well at all; just starting off slow,” he said after the Tigers lost to the Braves 8-1 on Thursday. “You have one bad inning and it affects the whole outing. I can’t keep coming out and saying that a bad first inning got me.
“I need to clean that up.”
It was the third straight start where Fiers struggled in the first inning. The first five batters reached base — a single, three walks and a hit batsman.
“It’s just stepping on the gas early in the game,” Fiers said. “It’s been a trend the last three games, just coming out too passive. I’m trying to feel it out instead of attacking. But after the first, I felt I commanded the ball a lot better.
“I was throwing more strikes and getting ahead and getting them to swing early.”
Fiers, who was signed to a one-year, $6 million contract, managed to grind through four innings, 67 pitches and 47 strikes. He gave up a long, two-run home run to Ronald Acuna in the third inning.
“He’s a veteran,” Gardenhire said. “We’ll see what happens. He’s just misfiring a little. It’s about getting the ball where you want it and making some pitches. He’s a veteran and we will give him more leeway than we do the kids.
“He’ll keep working. He knows what he has to do. He just hasn’t been able to find it yet.”
He was throwing his fastball between 88-89 mph, his change-up and slider between 81-93 and his curve ball between 69-74 mph. He said his velocity was “perfect” for this time of year and that he was still building arm strength.
“Just stepping on the gas earlier is going to be the trick for me,” he said. “As soon as you get on that mound, these guys are attacking. They are ready to pound you as hard as they can. For me, I have to attack them.
“I’m coming out really passive, trying to feel out where my ball is going. I can’t do that. I need to be ready to go.”
At his velocity, though, Fiers can’t live up in the zone with his breaking balls, and that has been the case in these ugly first innings. He has fallen behind hitters, unable to establish his slider and change-up.
“He’s just out of whack right now,” Gardenhire said. “But I trust the guy. I know he knows how to pitch, I’ve watched him do it. He’s just misfiring right now…We have a couple of weeks left. You don’t want to go into the season with any uncertainty.
“For his confidence and for our confidence, he needs to be better.”
It’s been 11 days since closer Shane Greene has pitched in a game. Both general manager Al Avila and Gardenhire said he was no injured or dealing with anything physical.
“He’s fine,” Gardenhire said. “He’s been doing some work (on the back fields).”
Gardenhire said Greene is expected to pitch in the game Friday against the Phillies in Lakeland.
“I talked to our pitching guru (Bosio) and he said he’s got him on the right program and he’s exactly where he wants him,” Gardenhire said. “From here on out, he’ll be in there. Boz has him on a program and whatever it might be, he’ll be fine.”
The Tigers bats were subdued by Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz. He pitched five no-hit innings against them, allowing only a walk to Miguel Cabrera. He struck out five.
In 14 innings this spring, Foltynewicz has allowed three hits and no runs.
The Tigers managed just one hit in seven innings, a two-out double by center fielder Leonys Martin.
The Braves added two more runs in the sixth, a two-run home run by Danny Santana off right-hander Joe Jimenez. Those were the first two earned runs off Jimenez this spring. In the eighth, Dylan Moore blasted a home run off right-hander Warwick Saupold.
The Tigers finally got on the scoreboard in the eighth. After Derek Norris was hit by a pitch, Jim Adduci and Alexi Amarista singled.