When Casey Mize gets his pitches working and finds a rhythm on the mound, he can make a gem of an outing look like a game of catch. Thursday was a gem, but not necessarily effortless.
Mize wore his intensity on the sleeve of his Spring Training jersey as he tried to pitch his way into the classic Tigers home jersey for Opening Day. He trusted the process all Spring Training, but as he mowed through Blue Jays regulars, one swing-and-miss after another, he looked, at times, like he was willing his process into results.
“Honestly, I was driven tonight, for sure,” Mize said after his four innings in a 3-3 tie. “I really felt like I had something to prove and I needed to go have a good outing.”
That’s what manager A.J. Hinch has been pushing all camp. He wanted to push Detroit’s young hurlers past the prospect rankings and scouting reports and prod them to pitch with intensity like their jobs depended on it.
“We have not made a decision,” Hinch said after the game.
No matter what happens, Mize met the challenge presented to him. When he walked three batters in each of his first three outings, nine passes over 6 1/3 innings, Hinch challenged him to throw strikes and get outs in the zone. When Mize did that, adjusting his focus from the catcher’s mitt to key points like the catcher’s right knee on a two-seamer to a right-handed hitter, and gave up five runs to the Blue Jays last Friday in Lakeland, Fla., Hinch defended his pitcher, saying the results didn’t match the stuff.
On Thursday night, the metrics and the numbers matched. Eight of Mize’s first nine outs came via strikeout, yet he not only didn’t walk a batter all night, he reached just two three-ball counts. His only long at-bat was a 12-pitch first-inning battle that Cavan Biggio won with a single.
Mize came back from that still attacking, striking out Bo Bichette on four pitches and Teoscar Hernández in three. When the Jays jumped him for three consecutive hits and two runs in four pitches to begin his fourth inning, Mize kept attacking with a three-pitch strikeout of Randal Grichuk.
“An at-bat is a race to two strikes,” Mize said, echoing a line Hinch has used often this spring.
Mize finished with nine strikeouts over four innings, yet threw 55 of 72 pitches for strikes. He drew 13 swings-and-misses, three on a splitter that looked like a wipeout pitch again, and he averaged 95-96 mph with his sinker and fastball.
“If I had his stuff, I’d throw strikes if I had a choice,” Hinch said. “And I think he wants to. It’s not like he’s choosing not to, but that mindset has to continue in times where you’re not doing well and in times where you’re dominating.”
If Mize did enough to win a starting job Thursday, then the Tigers’ five-man rotation to open the season should be set. Matthew Boyd and Julio Teheran are in, Skubal has made the roster and José Ureña’s recent work has all but eliminated the possibility of him moving to the bullpen. Spencer Turnbull is on the injured list while waiting in COVID protocol.
However, Michael Fulmer competed just about as well Thursday, racking up seven strikeouts over the game’s final four innings while allowing a run on three hits with a walk and a hit batter. He drew 12 swings-and-misses, 10 of them on sliders, and averaged 94 mph with his sinker and slider.
If Mize starts, the Tigers could face a difficult decision with Fulmer: Shift him to the bullpen to continue his work with pitching coach Chris Fetter, or put him in Toledo to stay ready should a rotation spot open up through injury, ineffectiveness or innings limits. Fulmer will gain the right to decline a Minor League assignment once he reaches five years of service time, which he’ll do with 15 more days in the Majors.
The decision with Mize isn’t much easier, despite Thursday’s performance.
“He’s made a lot of Major League hitters look bad this spring,” Hinch said. “There’s going to be some growing pains, and if we expect him to be perfect, then we’re setting him up for failure.
“So the growth that needs to happen is going to have to happen at the big leagues. At some point, we have to discuss whether the best thing for him and the best thing for us is [him] going north with us. But I absolutely trust Casey Mize. If we put him out there, it’s because I believe and our coaches believe and our organization believes that he can execute.”