Lange inspires confidence in MLB debut

April 11th, 2021

The Tigers had a forgettable evening in Cleveland -- except for , who won’t forget Detroit's 11-3 loss on Saturday for the rest of his life.

“It’s something you dream about from the time you pick up a plastic bat in the backyard as a kid, playing in the big leagues,” Lange said before the game, looking forward to his Major League debut. “Every day, every workout, every lesson, every 6 a.m. [alarm]. It’s just incredible.”

On a night that became a tough lesson for , whose battle with fastball command led to three home runs and six runs over four innings in his ninth Major League start, Lange plowed through the middle of Cleveland’s lineup in the fifth inning. His final pitch was a filthy breaking ball with a 44-inch vertical drop to fan Tiger-killer Franmil Reyes for Lange’s first Major League strikeout.

As he walked off the field, an otherwise downtrodden Tigers dugout came to life for him.

“We’ve all been there before,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “Major League debuts are very special. For him to get through it, put up a zero, get a punchout at the end, obviously a big night for him and a big smile on his face -- as there should be.”

Lange will have trying nights like Skubal did, but he had the best inning of any Tigers pitcher Saturday. That’s good news for the hyper-competitive, enthusiastic Lange, but also very good news for Detroit.

For all the well-deserved attention on Skubal, Casey Mize and Matt Manning, the Tigers need some of their lesser-known pitching prospects to pan out to build a more complete staff. The need is accentuated in the bullpen, where Detroit struggled to develop young arms until the last few years and still looks to build a pipeline of power arms. That means getting marked improvement out of lower-profile pitchers from the time they enter the organization, which is why the Tigers hired former University of Southern California head coach Dan Hubbs as director of pitching development and hired pitching coach Chris Fetter away from the University of Michigan.

Lange sits at No. 29 on MLB Pipeline’s Tigers prospect rankings; he entered the Top 30 last weekend after Skubal graduated from the list. Lange had an incredible early career at Louisiana State University, but a relatively mundane beginning to his pro career after the Cubs selected him 30th overall in the 2017 Draft. Tigers general manager Al Avila and LSU head coach Paul Mainieri have been friends for decades since Avila was Mainieri’s assistant coach at St. Thomas University in Miami, and after a chat, Avila brought in Lange as part of the Nick Castellanos trade two years ago.

Lange had a good run out of the bullpen at Double-A Erie after the trade, but he grabbed attention last summer. His fastball jumped to 97 mph, and his breaking pitches had more bite. He used the previous offseason and baseball’s shutdown last spring to work out, go to Driveline and change his game.

“I feel like I’m a completely different pitcher than I was in my last outing in ‘19,” Lange said. “I came into Spring Training in ‘20, kind of got to battle-test some things, then really took in after the shutdown in March, really understood what I had to do to get to the next level. If I wanted to be where I wanted to be, I had to make some changes.”

Lange’s first big league pitch was a 97.1 mph fastball to José Ramírez, just missing at the knees but setting up back-to-back swings and misses on curveballs. When Lange went back to the fastball and induced a Ramírez grounder to first, the hurler bolted to the bag so quickly that he nearly overran Miguel Cabrera’s throw. Another barrage of breaking balls set up a high fastball to Eddie Rosario for another groundout. Aside from a fastball up and out of the zone, Lange threw all breaking balls to Reyes, getting him to chase a full-count offering in the dirt.

“I felt like the breaking ball was a good pitch tonight,” Lange said. “He did a good job of laying off it on 2-2, and I trusted myself and attacked with how I [thought] we can get him out.”

It meant little in Saturday’s outcome; Cleveland’s win probability fell from 97.4 to 96.9 percent with the scoreless inning. It means more for the Tigers’ future.

“He can pitch his way into any number of roles on our team,” Hinch said.