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Tigers vs. Twins Preview: Casey Mize hunts his first win and a series sweep

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The Tigers can reach .500 with another victory, but the lineup will face a stern test from Kenta Maeda.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Just a few weeks ago, the Detroit Tigers were unraveling. A quick start gave way to a nine game losing streak. In a season with just 60 games, give a take a few, that stretch had to end for the club to have any chance at relevance in the stretch drive. The bats were quiet and short outings by starters were putting them in an early hole in just about every game.

On August 17, the club made the fateful decision to call up top prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Isaac Paredes. Things have felt a little different ever since. None of the group has been a game changer, but their collective ability to provide competitive contributions have brought much needed depth to both the pitching staff and the lineup. The reinforcements seem to have heartened a club that was scuffling and they’ve been playing much better baseball.

Heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Minnesota Twins, the Tigers have already locked up their third straight series victory, with two of them coming against AL Central foes. Completing the three-game sweep would send them into Monday’s off day with a .500 record, and no more than a game and a half behind the Toronto —by way of Buffalo— Blue Jays for the eighth and final spot in the American League playoffs.

It would be a nice time for Casey Mize to collect the first win of his major league career.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers top prospect hasn’t put together a complete outing so far, yet he’s certainly looked the part of a high end pitching prospect. Though just seven and two-thirds innings of work, Mize has shown elite strikeout ability and command, exactly the traits that made him the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. However, he’s made some mistakes along the way, and found as all young pitchers do, that major league hitters punish those mistakes with great regularity.

In game two of Saturday’s doubleheader sweep, we saw Mize’s friend and fellow rookie Tarik Skubal simply attack hitters with a double-plus caliber fastball and manage a top lineup without particularly fine command. Mize plays a somewhat different game. A game that requires more precision. And one of the better power-hitting clubs in baseball will put it to the test on Sunday.

So far, Mize has spotted his fastball well, sticking mainly with the two-seamer, while mixing in a somewhat inconsistent cutter by his standards. The splitter has looked every bit the monster weapon it’s been for Mize since his college days. He just has to be careful not to lean on it too heavily, as a hanging splitter is a meatball of the highest order.

The Twins will be a challenge, but as Mize settles in, hitters are likely to see less mistakes. While he’s generally kept his cool, professional demeanor on the mound, the stuff hasn’t really been his best. We’ve seen somewhat nastier and more consistent versions of both his cutter and splitter in Mize’s two years in the organization.

All of which is to say, that Mize has more than he’s shown so far, and he seems due to put the whole package together into a strong outing. When he does, even a good hitting team is going to have real problems. The Tigers offense could use the help, as it’s likely to require a strong outing to beat a red hot Kenta Maeda. Either way, it’s pretty exciting to have Mize, as well as Skubal, Paredes, and Willi Castro, up and in a Tigers’ uniform already.

Minnesota Twins (20-14) at Detroit Tigers (15-16)

Time/Place: 1:10 pm, Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Kenta Maeda (4-0, 2.21 ERA) vs. RHP Casey Mize (0-1, 7.04 ERA)

Game 32 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Mize 7.2 5.37 23.1 5.1 2.35 0.0
Maeda 36.2 2.61 29.4 5.1 0.74 1.3

The Tigers offense has really perked up over the past week. They’re going to need to be extra perky to deal with Kenta Maeda. Since signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to the 2016 season, the 32-year-old right hander has been a consistently good mid-rotation starter. Over the past year, he’s shown signs of taking it to another level.

Twins general manager Thad Levine managed to worm his way into the Mookie Betts deal between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox back in February. The Red Sox wanted pitching in a proposed Betts deal, while the Dodgers were more interested in trading from major league depth like Maeda. The Twins became an intermediary in those talks, but ultimately completed a straight up swapsending top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol to Los Angeles, with Maeda coming over to Minnesota.

So far, the win now move is paying off.

Maeda currently holds the fourth best swinging strike rate in baseball. He’s cut his fastball usage over ten percent, and is now throwing a balanced three-pitch mix of fastball, slider, and changeup. The change in particular has been a huge weapon for him through six starts this season. Two starts ago, he lost a no-hitter in the ninth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers. Maeda and Jose Berrios are holding together a somewhat shaky Twins rotation right now. A young and relatively inexperienced Tigers lineup is going to have their hands full with a pitcher who feasts on free-swinging teams.

Key Matchup: Tigers vs. the change up

Thus far, Tigers hitters have been pretty good against fastballs and change ups. Overall, they still lack patience and strike out quite a bit, but they’ve put the ball in play with authority against those two pitches. The problem, is that you don’t see many pitchers throwing such an unpredictable pitch mix with excellent command. Maeda has the deception and the refined repertoire to really wreak havoc on inexperienced hitters.

The keystone for Maeda is his changeup. The pitch has some ride to it, yet is slow enough to completely fall off the table. He sells it with excellent armspeed, and will spot it aggressively in any count. Combined with a pinpoint fastball, he’s looked like prime Zack Greinke out there so far. While you’re caught between those two pitches, Maeda will then start carving with a pretty lethal slider as well. If the Tigers can lay off the changeup, they may be able to force Maeda to spot his fastball more often and take advantage. It’s going to be a tall order though.

Prediction

With a series win in the bag already, it feels like Casey Mize will be allowed more leash in this one. We’ll say he goes toe-to-toe with Maeda, and the offense scratches out late runs to win their fifth straight.