Tigers tie Blue Jays, Mize strikes out 9 in late bid for rotation spot
Dunedin, Florida – You could see it in his pitches Thursday night at TD Ballpark.
You could see it in Casey Mize’s mound mannerisms, as well, a kind of fed-up fury that comes when a 24-year-old pitcher who three years ago was a first-overall draft pick decides he’s had enough rehearsals.
Mize wants to make the Tigers rotation. Now.
He struck out nine batters in four innings Thursday, using a masterly mix of four-seam fastballs (often 97, and topping out at 98), as well as a heavy sinker, with a batch of cutters and split-finger pitches tossed in as the Tigers and Blue Jays played to a nine-inning, 3-3 tie.
Mize didn’t argue afterward with those who sensed he was working not only for a rotation spot, but also with some ire over the way things have gone during a bumpy spring.
“A little bit of that was there,” Mize said, acknowledging that something deep was driving him. “This spring hasn’t been as good as I wanted it to be.”
Nor has it been a hit with fans whose sniping on social media has been getting loud.
“I don’t care,” Mize said. “I just hate the feeling of letting my teammates down. I hate that, in five days, they might have a little doubt (about his next start). I’m trying to earn that trust.”
Tigers manager AJ Hinch wasn’t saying any such thing afterward, not a week before Opening Day in Detroit. But with the blend of pitches, and location, Mize was showing Thursday, a pitcher the Tigers have known was going to be fine, just fine, might have moved closer to an April job in Detroit
“I think he had great swing-and-miss stuff,” Hinch said. “He was on the attack tonight.”
Hinch also insisted “we have made no decision” about Mize’s shot at winning an April rotation ticket.
Mize will pitch once more before the Tigers break camp Tuesday and head north for their April 1 opener against the Indians at Comerica Park.
“I don’t know if there’s anything he has to do,” Hinch said, being careful with words that could be interpreted either way. “This is a short-term and long-term (process). He has incredible stuff. He’s a great pitcher who’s growing, maturing, and I’m not sure he’s needed to do anything more than that.
“He can miss some bats, he has swing-and-miss stuff, and he’s a thinking-man’s pitcher.”
Mize struck out all three batters in the Blue Jays first, with his four-seam (hitting 98) and sinker doing much of the damage.
He shifted to more of a mix with his secondary pitches in the second, and here his split-finger — showing velocity as well as location — set up two more punch-outs.
Mize’s pitch-count was the only issue: 72 through those four innings. But the count climbed in great part because Jays batters fouled off scads of pitches, which included a 12-pitch at-bat by Cavan Biggio.
Mize’s only flawed inning was the fourth when the Blue Jays got both runs.
He was hurt there as much by a dropped fly ball that JaCoby Jones botched on the left-field warning track. But Mize had also contributed, with Teoscar Hernandez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., scorching back-to-back doubles. Mize also hit a batter.
He knew also what the Jays were doing — jumping on early fastballs rather than risking a two-strike count.
“The second time through (the batting order) they weren’t going to let him have two strikes,” Hinch said, “but he got out of the inning by grinding through it. I was very proud of him.”
So was his catcher, Grayson Greiner, who Thursday won the back-up catcher’s job on Hinch’s Opening Day roster.
“His cutter was really good,” Greiner said of Mize. “A lot of swing-and-misses on cutters. He also elevated his four-seamer, something we’ve really worked on.
“Even in that last inning (fourth), those were pretty well-executed pitches. Guerrero put a really good swing on a sinker.”
Fulmer settling in?
Michael Fulmer seemed to have shared in a bit of that Mize mentality Thursday.
Fulmer worked four innings, struck out seven, and allowed but three hits and a single run as the Tigers groom him either for a starting spot, or more likely, a bullpen niche.
“I like what I’ve seen from Fulmer,” Hinch said. “He’s not overcomplicating it. He’s not thinking too much. He’s in a good place, mentally and physically. And he’s able to come up with something of an empty-tank mentality.”
Meaning, of course, that Fulmer isn’t holding back.
“His velocity ticked up a little bit tonight,” Hinch said of Fulmer, whose four-seam fastball topped out at 96. Fulmer had his sinker as well Thursday, pairing them with a sharp slider and change-up.
Around the horn
Eric Haase, who lost the backup catcher’s job to Greiner, might have had roster decisions in mind when he tied the score with a 402-foot homer to left-center. Haase has hit three home runs this spring.
… The Tigers got their first run in the third when Daz Cameron drew a leadoff walk, moved to third on a broken-bat single by Greiner, and scored on Jones’ ground-out.
They tied the score 2-2 in the sixth on Victor Reyes’ single, a double to right-center from Niko Goodrum, and Jeimer Candelario’s RBI ground-out.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and a retired Detroit News sportswriter.