DETROIT -- The last time the Tigers were together in Spring Training, Matt Manning was looking forward to pitching against the Yankees on a Friday night in Tampa, Fla., a showcase under the lights against a lineup that was expected to include some Bronx regulars. The coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans.
If someone had told Manning then that he would be pitching on the mound at Comerica Park in July, he probably would’ve taken it. As he stepped onto the rubber Friday afternoon, it was a bullpen session to begin the Tigers’ Summer Camp, not a midseason callup. But he still made an impression for the few people in attendance.
“He's a really nice looking pitcher,” manager Ron Gardenhire said later. “We were standing behind him today watching him. I don't get as much opportunity as a lot of guys because I've got a lot of stuff going on during the day, to be able to stand behind a guy. It's really nice to see baseball and to watch him get up on a mound and look at him.
“He threw a couple of curveballs, and as I did when I was a player, I buckled from behind. So he must have pretty good stuff to buckle a veteran like me.”
Manning tried to keep it in perspective.
“Honestly, it just felt really good to put a baseball uniform back on and get back out there,” he said.
It actually isn’t the first time Manning, the Tigers No. 2 prospect and No. 24 overall, has been on the mound at Comerica Park. He worked out here for Tigers personnel prior to the 2016 MLB Draft, part of the case that convinced the team to take him with its ninth overall pick. He was a two-sport athlete then, having started pitching just a couple of years prior. He’s a more polished pitcher now, from his delivery to his arsenal, a tribute to the work he put in with Tigers coaches and instructors.
He has also matured as a player. When asked what he hoped to learn from the veteran pitchers in this Summer Camp that he didn’t pick up in Spring Training, he was introspective.
“For me, I think I'm just trying to build more relationships, build more trust with everybody, be able to take criticism and feedback and have a conversation about it just to get better,” he said.
Manning also talked about his individual goal to get his arm back in shape and to be ready for whatever his role might be, even if it means throwing in simulated games at the Tigers' Triple-A facility in Toledo, Ohio, with other prospects as part of the player pool.
That’s the tricky part of it. Ideally, he’d love to get back to where he and his fellow prospects were in March, when they were the talk of Lakeland, and the idea of their Major League debuts that year felt more like when than if. Though general manager Al Avila mentioned Casey Mize and Alex Faedo as prospects who seemed in position for midseason callups going into a normal season, Manning had a case as well, having posted 26 starts at Double-A Erie over the past 1 1/2 seasons.
Before Spring Training was suspended, it all seemed to be taking shape. Then suddenly, it stopped.
“I think it was tough for everybody, especially with how much momentum me and my other teammates had going in,” Manning said. “We thought there was kind of a plan going forward that we could see happening. It's just another bump in the road. It's nothing too major.”
That said, when asked how close Friday’s session on the mound at Comerica Park made him feel to the big leagues, Manning was honest.
“I feel pretty close,” he said. “If it was up to me, I hope I could be there tomorrow, but I know it's about the team, and I'm just here to help in any way I can.”
He doesn’t get to make the decision, but this is his chance to make his case. Friday was a step forward to getting back to where he was in March.
“As a competitor, every time I take the ball, I'm going to do as well as I can,” he said. “Whatever results come with it, I'll let them make that decision.”