Tigers' AJ Hinch won't flinch on shift strategy; Matt Manning has an inning to remember
Clearwater, Fla. — Among the smorgasbord of takeaways from the Tigers' 6-4 spring loss to the Phillies Wednesday is, skipper AJ Hinch is never going to flinch when it comes to using defensive shifts.
And why would he? They helped him to five straight winning seasons, two trips to the World Series and one ring with the Astros.
Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius tested it leading off the second inning. With lefty Matthew Boyd on the mound, the Tigers overloaded the right side of the infield. With the left side wide open, the left-handed hitting Gregorius made up his mind to steal an easy hit by pushing a bunt toward third base.
He fouled off the first pitch and the Tigers didn’t budge. The second pitch he got down, but Boyd pounced on it and threw him out easily.
“If they want to try that, it’s fine,” Hinch said. “Didi gave us a strike and then he gave us an out. If they get on base, it’s frustrating. But we’re playing there for a reason.”
Gregorius isn’t the first nor will he be the last hitter to challenge the Tigers’ shifts by bunting. Hinch is well aware of that.
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“But not successful,” he said. “They tried it. Boyd made a nice play. It’s a weapon for them against the shift if they want to do that. Obviously, it’s a cat and mouse game.”
This was Boyd’s second start this spring and he was strong. He threw 50 pitches in three innings. He gave up some hard-hit balls, but only one that did any damage. He elevated a 3-2 change-up to catcher Jeff Mathis leading off the third inning that ended up over the left-field fence.
He didn’t second-guess the pitch choice there.
“If I executed that a pitch down (in the strike zone) there, or any of my pitches down, we’d probably be successful,” Boyd said. “But it wasn’t executed. It was pushed and up in the zone. I gave him a chance.”
He had three strikeouts and 10 swings-and-misses on the day, using all four of his pitches. He punched out Bryce Harper twice, both with sliders. And, he put his PFP (pitchers fielding practice) work to good use. Not only did he make the play on Gregorius’ bunt, he also picked off Brad Miller at first base.
“I’m just glad (the bunt) took a good hop and I was able to put the last month worth of work to good use,” he said with a smile. “I’m sure that won’t be the last time we see that, especially lefty-on-lefty. But that’s my job to cover that play and I’m glad our coaches prepared me for it.”
Manning vs. Harper
Pretty eventful two innings for prospect Matt Manning.
He entered the game in the fifth inning and immediately locked into a 12-pitch war with Jean Segura. Manning got ahead 0-2 then Segura fouled off six pitches and worked the count full. On the 12th pitch, Manning buckled him with a curveball at the knees. Called strike three.
Next up, Bryce Harper. Manning struck him out on three fastballs — 94, 95 and 97 mph.
“Those are some big boys he’s facing,” Hinch said. “I’m sure going home tonight it feels good to win the battle against Segura, a former All-Star, and then throw velocity by Harper. He was good.”
He gave up three hits and a run in his second inning of work. The run scored on a throwing error by catcher Eric Haase (who had two hits in the game). Manning got out of further trouble getting a double-play grounder turned nicely by prospects Ryan Kreidler and Kody Clemens.
“We’re cautiously walking Manning through this spring, that’s why we’re not extending him beyond the two innings (and 28 pitches),” Hinch said. “But he’s answered every challenge, both mentally and physically, we could’ve hoped for.”
Rough one for Farmer
Neither Hinch nor pitching coach Chris Fetter are fretting over the early knocks veteran reliever Buck Farmer has taken this spring (eight runs in two innings). Results for a guy with a big-league track record are mostly inconsequential.
What’s a little bit worrisome, though, is that he’s hasn’t found a feel for his best pitch, the change-up. He threw eight of them Wednesday, six were balls, one was fouled off and the other, a 3-2 hanger, was knocked out of the park by Miller.
“His change-up just hasn’t been there,” Hinch said. “He was spiking them in the dirt and then he went middle-middle with a fastball and the guy hit it out of the park.”
That was Luke Williams, who ended Farmer’s outing with a three-run home run off a 94-mph four-seamer.
“One swing changes the momentum of the day,” Hinch said. “If that ends up being an F-7 (fly out left field), we’re happy with the outing. If it goes out, it changes his day significantly. But mostly with Buck, it’s a lack of change-up feel that’s been his biggest issue so far.
“But it’ll be there for him. We’ll get him back out there Saturday.”
Home run balls
The Tigers knocked two out of the park themselves Wednesday. Third baseman Isaac Paredes turned on a 94-mph fastball in the first inning and drove it just inside the left-field foul pole.
Then in the sixth inning, Robbie Grossman, batting left-handed against right-hander Hector Rondon, slammed a 94-mph heater onto the berm in left-center field.
Grossman had been 2-for-16 this spring prior to that at-bat.
“I’m close,” he said. “I feel really good. The biggest thing to take out of spring training, especially a guy at my stage, is how the body feels. And I feel better than I ever have in spring training. That’s huge for me.”
Franklin Perez sighting
Before the shoulder injuries, before all the missed time, right-hander Franklin Perez had a mid-90s fastball and a plus off-speed pitch. The change-up is still pretty good, but the velocity on his fastball has not come back.
He pitched a scoreless inning in his spring debut, but his fastball range was 86-89 mph. He got through the inning with six change-ups.
“I’m glad he got through it and he has something to work from,” Hinch said. “About the velocity, we’ll see. That’s one of the things we will have to evaluate when we get back to Lakeland. It’s down from where it’s been, whether it’s arm strength, his conviction to throw it or everything in between.”