'Just a tough day': Home run balls, spotty command ruin day for Casey Mize, Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Clearwater, Fla. — Stuff gets in your head.

The book on Casey Mize, since his days at Auburn, is that he’s a strike-thrower. Not only that, he can pitch with command within the strike zone. It’s as much a part of his pitching DNA as his splitter. Then he comes to spring training this year and walks three hitters in each of his first two starts.

Stuff gets in your head.

Tigers pitcher Casey Mize

Then he walked the first hitter he faced here Saturday. On five pitches. Now there’s no other thought in his mind except throw strikes. Which he did, ultimately to his own detriment. He got two quick strikes on the Phillies' Bryce Harper and went right after him with a 97-mph fastball.

KaBoom. The ball left Harper’s bat with an exit velocity of 109 mph and traveled 436 feet over the center-field fence.

“A week ago, I’m probably not throwing him a strike there,” said Mize, who was tagged for six runs in 2⅓ innings in the Tigers’ 9-3 spring loss. “But today I was throwing a strike.”

Stuff gets in your head.

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“And that is a situation where I can afford not to throw a strike,” he said. “I was trying to end some at-bats early and throw a lot of strikes and it didn’t work out.”

Three shaky spring starts isn’t going to cost Mize a roster spot. He knows it and the Tigers know it. Especially when you see how good his pitches are. The four-seam fastball was hitting 97 mph, and with his splitter, slider, sinker and curveball, he got 11 swings and misses and three punch-outs.

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“Obviously, I want the results to be better on the field,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I say this all the time, just put in another quality week of work, try to improve and prepare for the season. As a player, it’s frustrating when you give up six runs and walk three batters. It sucks.

“But this is short-term. It’s not going to affect my long-term if I continue to trust my process and put in quality work.”

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Manager AJ Hinch is doing his level best to keep everything in perspective in terms of both short- and long-term expectations.

“You try not to ride the roller-coaster of emotions,” he said. “When he does well he’s on the team and when he doesn’t do well, he’s not on the team. We are looking at the big-picture here, but we’re also looking at what he can do against major league hitters today to determine if he is going to break camp with us.

“He’s got a lot of time left, but we want to see improvement.”

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After the Harper home run, Mize cruised through a clean second inning in just 13 pitches before things got murky again.

Andrew McCutchen ripped a 2-2 sinker off the wall for a leadoff double and the third inning quickly unraveled. Mize got two quick strikes on both Rhys Hoskins and Harper and ended up walking them both to load the bases.

Then Mize made maybe his worst pitch of the day — a hanging 1-1 splitter to Didi Gregorius. That ball not only cleared the right-field wall, but it sailed over the concourse and out of the stadium.

“Just a tough day,” Mize said. “It just comes down to execution. I’m throwing way too many pitches.”

A lot of his pitches, especially his two-seamer, were missing to his arm side — leaking back over the plate to left-handed hitters and running inside to right-handers. That is typically a routine mechanical fix. His slider had been one of his best pitches in his first two outings, but it wasn't as consistent in this one.

“His stuff is plenty,” Hinch said. “He does have a knack for overcomplicating a few things. He expects perfection out of himself. But there’s a ton to work with and a ton he’s going to learn. He’s going to grow and mature.

“It’s just that some lessons are harder than others — like how important execution is at critical times.”

If things stay on track, Mize should get three more starts before the end of camp.

Ugly ball

As for the game itself, well, best to leave it in Clearwater.

“We didn’t play very well,” Hinch said. “We had a few miscues that weren’t even in the box score. Today was not a good day from an execution standpoint.”

Innings don’t get any uglier than the Phillies' three-run fifth. Shortstop Willi Castro, who made two excellent fielding plays and strong throws earlier, babied one and threw it wide — his third throwing error of the spring. Reliever Joe Jimenez walked two, hit one and threw three wild pitches, with two of them plating runs.

“All in all, if I could eliminate the day from my Rolodex, it’d be good by me,” Hinch said.

Veteran catcher Dustin Garneau, who had two hits and is 5-for-11 this spring, seemed upset at himself for not blocking a couple of those spiked breaking balls.

“Any time as a catcher, you take all those personal,” said Hinch, a former catcher. “You work your tail off behind the plate to save runs, to save bases, to protect 90 feet. It doesn’t matter if they are tough blocks or not, as a catcher, you want perfection.

“Joe was spiking the ball. It looked like he wasn’t synced up a ton today. Just misfiring. And Dustin was a little slow getting down on a couple. It wasn’t a pretty inning.”

Around the horn

Spencer Torkelson, the first overall pick in last year’s draft, broke his drought. He ripped a single to left, ending an 0-for-14 skid in his first big league camp. “Everyone can exhale now,” Hinch joked. “Tork got his first hit in an exhibition game.”

…Rule 5 rookie outfielder Akil Baddoo continues to impress. He drilled a two-run home run over the right field wall in the ninth inning. He’s 7 for 18 with two doubles and a homer.

…Shortstop prospect and mini-camper Ryan Kreidler, who homered in Dunedin on Thursday, ripped an RBI double Saturday.

…Right-hander and mini-camper Drew Hutchison, the 30-year-old former Blue Jays standout trying to return to the big leagues after a two-year absence, featured a 95-mph fastball in a scoreless inning.


Twitter: @cmccosky