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Armed with a true three-pitch arsenal and among a trio of first-round picks, Matt Manning is continuing to pound third strikes by Double-A hitters.

The Erie SeaWolves right-hander leads the Eastern League with 88 strikeouts and has cut his walk rate this season, furthering hope that a strong future corps of Tigers starters is already together in Pennsylvania.

Picked No. 9 in the 2016 draft, Manning is teaming with Alex Faedo (No. 18 in 2017) and Casey Mize (No. 1 in 2018) to form a talented trio.

“I think us all being on the same team together is hopefully the goal for all three of us to pitch in the big leagues together, so the more time we have together now is all beneficial,” Manning told reporters on a conference call Monday from Trenton, N.J., where the SeaWolves were preparing for a game against the Thunder.

On Saturday night, Manning kept the Thunder quiet with eight strikeouts over six innings without an earned run. The 6-foot-6 Manning walked two batters in 109 pitches, showing off the improved command that has him rising up prospect rankings.

Manning averaged 3.9 walks per nine innings last year at Low-A West Michigan, High-A Lakeland and Erie. This year, that rate is down to 2.5 and the 21-year-old is now the No. 44 prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline.

Manning has a mid-90s fastball and a curveball that ranges from “plus” to “plus plus” on the scouting scale. His repertoire has been seasoned with an emerging changeup that has fans thinking that, paired with Mize down the line at Comerica Park, the Tigers could have an “ace ace” on the way.

“The changeup kind of just developed from last year through spring training, just more repetition with it,” said Manning, now sporting a 5-3 record, a 2.14 ERA and 0.925 WHIP this season. “I think I’ve always had a good changeup, but now I’m getting the movement I want on it, the velo differential, and I have the confidence in it to throw it when I’m behind the counts, or early in the counts.”

Manning said he has a good feel on all three pitches and doesn’t prefer to throw one or the other. He said he usually establishes the changeup early in the game, then mixes in the curveball later.

“It’s all part of pitching and just feeling out the game,” he said.

The SeaWolves also feature starters Faedo (3-4, 3.92 ERA, No. 14 Tigers prospect on Detroit News list), Logan Shore (2-5, 4.47, No. 30) and Anthony Castro (1-1, 5.26 No. 16).

No. 15 prospect Kyle Funkhouser, who struggled early this season for Triple-A Toledo, pitched well Sunday in his Erie season debut, surrendering one run and two hits in five innings in coming back from a shoulder impingement.

“Pitching with them has been a lot of fun,” Manning said. “We’ve gotten to know each other these last couple months. We’re all pretty different the way we go about our business, taking little things from each other, maybe just the analytical side or the grinding side of getting through games and knocking down innings.”

Mize, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, leads the Eastern League with a 1.27 ERA through eight starts. In addition to strikeouts, Manning leads the league with 71⅓  innings pitched.

“I’m feeling good, I haven’t had any setbacks,” Manning said of the workload. “I feel healthy every fifth day that I pick up the ball. Hopefully I can continue that way, and they haven’t told me anything about an innings limit, so you got to keep throwing until they tell me otherwise.”

While the production has remained steady, Manning said his curveball was not effective early in the season.

“At the beginning of the season, I was missing up high with it,” he said. "It wasn’t breaking, but now I’m facing through it, and it’s been a good pitch for me.”

Manning, the organization’s No. 2 prospect behind Mize on all the prospect lists, was named the Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Month for May. 

From Elk Grove, Calif., Manning is the youngest pitcher on the Erie roster and just the second-youngest player — infielder Isaac Paredes, the No. 3 prospect, is 20.

Manning’s father, Rich, played parts of two NBA seasons in the mid-1990s with the Vancouver Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. He scored eight points for the Grizzlies in a 1996 loss to Grant Hill and the Pistons at The Palace on Thanksgiving eve, his lone NBA game in Michigan.

Tigers general manager Al Avila said last week that he expects to see some of the Erie pitching talent — maybe even all of Faedo, Manning and Mize — head west on the Ohio Turnpike this season to Toledo.

But what about weary Tigers fans who can’t wait any longer for a glimpse of the future’s promise? 

Those looking for a road trip to see Manning and the SeaWolves have the Eastern League’s shortest drive from Michigan coming with a three-game weekend set in Akron, Ohio on June 21-23.

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.

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