Mize hurls 6 scoreless for first win since 2021

April 21st, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS -- The last time left the mound in front of Twins fans, he got a standing ovation. That was in the final week of Spring Training, when Mize tossed 4 2/3 scoreless innings in one of his final tuneups for his return to the Tigers’ rotation after nearly two years of rehab from Tommy John and back surgeries. It was a big step forward for him, and the fans in Fort Myers, Fla., who knew it gave him some appreciation.

When Mize left the mound Sunday afternoon at Target Field, by contrast, he received relative silence. That was fine with him, because it matched what Twins hitters did against him for six innings in the rubber match of a three-game series.

The 6-1 Detroit victory gave the Tigers another series win at Target Field, where they’re 6-3 since the start of last season. But it also gave Mize a much-deserved milestone in his road back: His first MLB win since Aug. 24, 2021.

“I think guys that miss time probably appreciate that a little bit more,” manager A.J. Hinch said.

The significance of pitcher wins can be debated, and the Tigers are 4-0 in Mize’s starts this season. But to put it in perspective: The last time Mize got a victory, the opposing starter was then-Cardinal and current Tigers teammate Jack Flaherty. Mize drew a bases-loaded walk off Flaherty that day, because pitchers were still batting in the National League then.

“Pitcher wins are here or there, but it feels good,” Mize said. “It's been a long time, but the bigger thing is the series win and the team win. I think we're all happy about that. Good day for us. …

“I always want the guys to think that we can win when I pitch. I think that's the goal of every starter. I'm glad I've been able to keep us in it, but the team scoring early really allowed me to have confidence in them and try to shove the ball in the strike zone. I always want us to win my starts.”

Mize's outing wasn’t as dominant as the numbers, at least stuff-wise. Mize's first pitch of the day was an 89.9 mph fastball well out of the strike zone. His velocity picked up from there, topping out at 97 mph and averaging 95.1. It was velocity he struggled to generate before his 2022 surgeries, but as he explained this weekend, it was more caused by his back than his elbow.

“The issue that I had was sciatic nerve pain down my left foot, so I couldn’t straighten that leg,” he said. “So when I landed, I couldn’t straighten it, or else it would shoot nerve pain up my leg. … So now, pain-free, it took me a while for my brain to recognize that and my body to follow suit. Now, I’m able to stick the leg in the ground and brace really hard, and that energy transfer is happening a lot better.”

Still, with first-pitch balls to four of his first five hitters Sunday, and walks to two of them, he had a struggle getting his command.

“Casey’s line was awesome,” Hinch said, “but it wasn’t without a fight.”

Up came rookie Austin Martin with the bases loaded with one out and a chance to erase Detroit’s 2-0 lead. Mize threw a 1-1 slider at the bottom of the zone but over the plate, and Martin hit it back up the middle. But Mize snared it with a quick reaction, saving two runs and setting up a Willi Castro fly ball to escape the inning.

Mize still struggled to settle in, searching for a slider that never quite locked in. But he found success when he pivoted to his splitter, a pitch that helped him through his first start of the season but had been in and out since. On Sunday, he drew five whiffs out of seven swings on splits, including a strikeout of Trevor Larnach with a runner on in the fifth inning. More impressively, Mize drew three called strikes, including a strikeout of Alex Kirilloff leading off the sixth.

“My stuff wasn't great,” Mize said, “but 'compete' was probably the biggest word for the day. I was trying to get outs with what I had.”

The result was just the second scoreless performance of six or more innings in Mize's career, and the first since April 12, 2021, when he shut down a loaded Astros lineup for seven innings in Houston en route to his first Major League win.

All of these milestones are a product of time, which Mize lost to surgery and rehab. But that time lost also gave him appreciation, not just of the great outings, but of the days during which he had to grind through innings and give the team a chance. In that sense, results like Sunday with less than his best stuff is a milestone of sorts.

“In a weird way, I don’t want to say I’m glad, but I’m fortunate in the fact that I was able to take a step back, take a breather, look in the mirror and see where I can improve and change some things," Mize said. "I think that’s positively affected the way I go about my day-to-day, and the way that I train and recover and just interact in the clubhouse with the guys and how much I enjoy competing again. It’s a new perspective for me, so I think that it’s a blessing for sure.”