Mize makes emotional return to game action after 22 months

February 27th, 2024

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Believe it or not, in Spring Training games there is still an option to pull a pitcher during an inning, bring in a reliever to finish the inning, then bring the previous pitcher back for the next. It’s a rarely-used move to help pitchers get in their work while avoiding a long inning they might not be ready to fill.

As labored through his first inning of competitive baseball in 22 months, his pitch count rising to 23 after back-to-back two-out walks, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch played that card. It was that important for Mize, whose nearly two-year journey back from right elbow and back surgeries culminated with his Tuesday start against the Blue Jays. It was that important for his teammates, who watched him support the team from the dugout last season while he rehabbed in Detroit.

As Mize walked off the field after his second inning, having returned to the game to retire the Jays in order, the difference was immense. Teammates greeted Mize at the dugout steps with congratulations. Mize was grinning as he talked with pitching coach Chris Fetter about his arsenal.

Mize got no decision in the Tigers’ 6-4 win over Toronto at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, but his victory was personal.

“He’s not an emotional guy,” Hinch said, “but the emotions were running pretty high for him. I’m glad he got to go [back] out there, and also get him feeling good walking off the field. That was a cool day for him. I know it wasn’t perfect, but not many of us can relate what taking two years to recover has been like for him.”

Hinch had made a point to use the Tigers’ morning meeting to welcome Mize back. It was as much a tribute to Mize as to the support staff that helped him through the rehab process to get back, including physical therapist Duncan Evans. Mize sat at his locker before the meeting, seemingly in deep thought.

“Feels good to go through this routine again,” he said later.

Mize has been ready to compete for a while now, his rehab process formally ending during the offseason, as he transitioned into a more traditional offseason workout routine that included pitch design and arm buildup. Still, the applause he received as he took the mound for the top of the first meant something.

“It’s rewarding,” Mize said. “Super happy to be back out there. I don’t know if I’d call it a big game from a competitive standpoint, obviously, but to me, it was obviously important.”

Mize’s first competitive pitch since May 2022 was a 92 mph fastball to Blue Jays leadoff hitter Ernie Clement. It was just below Mize’s career average on velocity, but turns out he was warming up.

Within a couple batters, Mize’s fastball was sitting at 96-97 mph. His command was rusty, but his arm was not.

Mize averaged 95.7 miles per hour on his fastball Tuesday, according to Statcast. He hadn’t done that in a regular-season game since his first start of 2021, when he averaged 96.

“Not enough strikes, which obviously was a bad thing today but something to grow on,” Mize said. “I’m a strike-thrower for the most part. ... What I need to improve on today is throwing strikes. I feel really good about being able to do that.”

Hinch had Mize scheduled for one or two innings, but didn’t want Mize to cross the 25-pitch mark in a single inning. He also didn’t want Mize to get too amped up and risk injury. Hinch took the ball, and told Mize to catch his breath before returning for the next inning.

Mize looked more in command upon his return. His final pitch was a 96.6 mph heater at the top of the zone, inside part of the plate, to fan Will Robertson.

Mize has been working on the high fastball -- not just the velocity, but the movement. Four of his five swings and misses were off the fastball. His splitter was less consistent, but he still got a swing and miss on one. He also had a couple called strikes on sliders.

Officially, Mize gave up two runs on one hit with two walks in 1 2/3 innings, striking out one and throwing 17 of 35 pitches for strikes.

“Obviously the results, I wish they would’ve been better,” Mize said. “[But] I’m just glad to be back out there in the mix of things. It’s a good day for me.”