'An underdog story': Gipson-Long shines in MLB debut

September 10th, 2023

DETROIT -- A.J. Hinch cautioned as he got to the mound to take the ball and end his Major League debut after a leadoff double and an infield single in the sixth inning.

“I told him, ‘Don’t let this be anything other than an incredible debut,’” the Tigers' manager said after their 3-2 win over the White Sox on Sunday afternoon.

The standing ovation Gipson-Long received from the crowd of 18,223 ensured that. No one was louder than the nearly two-dozen family, friends and former coaches seated behind home plate. Among them was his birth mother, Lili Gipson, holding a sign that read, “Go Saw Go.”

As Sawyer neared the dugout, he raised his glove and pointed to them. The emotion continued when he saw them all on the field after the game.

“It was so emotional,” he said. “My mom was crying. A couple people were crying. Just being out there with them and seeing everybody that has had an impact in my life along the way, it's surreal.”

Lili Gipson still remembers driving with a teenaged Sawyer on a campus visit to Mercer University. It was the first offer he’d received, and though they had time to think about it, he was ready to take it as they drove back home across Georgia. Between athletic and academic scholarships, he had a full ride.

She admittedly wasn’t envisioning Sawyer as a Major Leaguer back then. 

“All I ever heard was, 'You don't throw hard enough, you're too slow and you're too short,'” she said Sunday morning as she readied for his debut.

Gipson-Long went to Mercer and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical commerce with pre-med studies. He took the MCAT exams and can go to medical school. He also pitched well enough to catch the attention of longtime scout Jack Powell, who talked the Twins into drafting him in the sixth round in 2019.

“He's an underdog story,” Lili Gipson said Sunday morning before they took their seats. “You look up underdog, it's not going to be that dog that we remember from our childhood. It's going to be Sawyer. He's a grinder. He's a worker.”

Just over a year after the Twins traded Gipson-Long to Detroit for Michael Fulmer, he’s a big leaguer.

“You grew up watching these guys, and you never really think you're going to be there until you are,” he said. “Just showing up every day, no matter where you are, and putting in the work helps a lot. Show up no matter what your day was like before, trusting in God and trusting in yourself. Just having that confidence every day just to show up to the field helps a lot.”

Talking with Gipson-Long's family, it’s not hard to see where that comes from. Lili said she was raised by Depression-era parents, and she tried to pass down that work ethic raising Sawyer while pursuing her own career as a chiropractor. He didn’t do the showcase circuit as a kid, but his slider caught the attention of high school and college coaches, and he had the innate ability to pick up pitches as he went along.

The latter helped get Gipson-Long here this year. He developed a sinker at the start of the year and tweaked his changeup to a vulcan grip. The Tigers took a week with him at midseason for pitching director Gabe Ribas to help him develop a cutter to complement his low to mid-90s fastball.

Gipson-Long's changeup tormented White Sox hitters all afternoon, drawing four of his 11 swinging strikes and both of his first-inning strikeouts -- leadoff hitter Tim Anderson and All-Star Luis Robert Jr.

“The fact that he could land [secondary pitches] probably solved a lot of early-game nerves,” Hinch said, “because he found himself in such great counts. He got some swing and miss, and all of a sudden your chest goes out a little bit bigger and you start breathing a little bit easier.”

Gipson-Long retired Chicago’s first 10 batters before Andrew Benintendi’s sinking liner eluded Kerry Carpenter’s sliding attempt in right field for a fourth-inning triple, setting up an Eloy Jiménez two-out RBI double. The sixth-inning hits set up another run, but Will Vest preserved the lead as Tigers relievers retired the final 10 batters.

“I definitely took it all in,” Gipson-Long said, “and I'm very appreciative of everybody that has helped get me here. Just felt very blessed and tried to stay as present as possible no matter what, just pitch my game.”