Lakeland, Fla. — If all you know about Tigers left-hander Matt Hall was what you saw in his brief five-game, eight-inning big-league debut last September, then you don’t really know him yet.
A sixth-round pick in 2015, Hall shot through Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo last season, going 9-2 with a 2.13 ERA, striking out 135 over 114 innings in 37 games (including 14 starts). His fastball won’t light up the radar gun (89-90 mph) but his curve ball is dirty. In fact, he has one of the highest spin rates in camp.
Things didn’t go quite so well for him with the Tigers. His debut came in Cleveland where he was hastily summoned after Michael Fulmer was injured after facing just two hitters.
Hall’s debut line: 1 inning pitched (plus seven batters), 9 runs, 6 earned runs, 8 hits. Rough.
But, again, neither that outing nor the four others after it accurately define the kind of competitor Hall is. Here’s a window into his battle level:
Go back to the NCAA Super Regional in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2015. Hall was an All-American at Missouri State facing the host Razorbacks. Technically, Missouri State was the higher seed and should’ve been hosting the tournament.
But their home was a Double-A field in Springfield, Missouri, and it was unavailable. Still, right out of the gate, Hall had a chip on his shoulder.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was an awesome atmosphere,” he said after his work was done on Friday. “But they definitely had the home-field edge. We only got 600 tickets for our fans.”
Arkansas had won the first game, 18-4, so Hall was pitching in Game 2 to save the Bears season. He ended up throwing a complete game one-hitter, beating Arkansas 3-1. Tigers scouts were in the stands that day.
He struck out eight and didn’t allow a hit after the first inning. But perhaps more memorable, more revealing, was his confrontation with Razorbacks star and current Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi. All Benintendi got off Hall that day was a walk and some guff in four at-bats.
After inducing an inning-ending, double-liner in the first inning, Hall struck Benintendi out on a 2-2 fastball in the third. Benintendi didn’t appreciate Hall’s demeanor during that at-bat.
“When I was in college, I smiled a lot on the mound,” Hall said. “It was just a natural thing. Just having fun, you know. It’s nothing cocky. But he took it as cocky and arrogance and he started saying some choice words to me.”
Hall gave it right back, much to the delight of the Tigers scouts.
“I gave him a little glove flip and told him to go take a seat,” Hall said. “Just play the game, you know? We’re here, too. We were the underdogs, I guess, even though we were the higher seed.”
Benintendi came up with two outs in the ninth inning, representing the winning run. Hall, undaunted, got him to foul out to end the game.
Arkansas ended up winning the series, taking the championship game 3-2. And the two ended up facing each other again later that year in short-season Class A.
“We hung out a little bit and laughed about it,” Hall said. “We’re cool now.”
The last time Hall faced Benintendi was during that A-ball season. He got him to tap back to the mound.
“Yeah, but then later that year he was in the big leagues and I was shut down on an innings limit,” Hall shrugged.
Hall is likely ticketed for Toledo again to start the season. Most likely, he is being stretched out to work in the starting rotation, though that is not set in stone.
A unique situation
The question posed to Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire Friday was, if Kaleb Cowart makes the team this spring as a two-way player — utility man and right-handed reliever — will the Tigers still carry seven relievers, or will they be able to carry six with an extra position player?
“That’s the interesting situation we have here,” Gardenhire said. “How are we going to do it? Basically, we are looking at him as a pitcher right now. That’s why we brought him over here. But if he throws like he’s capable of and he’s the right fit, we have that option.”
Gardenhire has always preferred to carry a third catcher, and that will be particularly true this season with John Hicks serving three roles — backing up at catcher, first base and designated hitter. But, if they do make the decision to carry six relievers and Cowart, that will further squeeze an already competitive fight for bullpen spots.
And that fight includes right-hander Reed Garrett, whom the Tigers selected in the Rule 5 draft. The Tigers will have to send him back to the Texas Rangers, the team they drafted him from, if he doesn’t stay on the active roster all season.
Besides veritable locks Shane Greene, Joe Jimenez and Drew VerHagen, Buck Farmer, Victor Alcantara, Daniel Stumpf and Blaine Hardy all finished strong out of the bullpen last season.
It's a boy
Tigers left-hander Matt Moore’s wife Anna gave birth to the couple’s first child, a boy, on Thursday. Moore, still wearing his hospital wrist band, threw a bullpen session Friday morning before hustling back to be with his wife and son.
“We are still deciding on a name,” he said. “We had three or four we liked, and now we’ve narrowed the list to two. But my wife is really doing well and he’s eating and sleeping good.”
The baby checked in at seven pounds, 15 ounces and 20 inches.