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Game 9 Preview: Tigers look to clinch series against the Royals

Detroit took the first two of a four-game Easter weekend series and look to grab another on Saturday.

MLB: MAR 21 Spring Training - Blue Jays at Tigers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers took the second of a four-game road series against the Kansas City Royals on Friday night, 2-1, with rookie Spencer Torkelson playing the role of Moses delivering the Motor City Kitties to the promised land with a two-run home run in the seventh inning. Tarik Skubal looked sharp on the mound, mixing his pitches well and hitting his corners in one of his best major league starts to date, while Miguel Cabrera edged closer to 3,000 with a double just ahead of Tork’s bomb. Mazel tov!

With momentum behind them, the Tigers look to do it again on Saturday afternoon behind yet another young pitcher who is still finding his groove in the big leagues. He will face a fellow 24-year-old who has been a bit difficult for Detroit to solve over the course of his career. Here is how the matchup boils down.

Detroit Tigers (4-4) at Kansas City Royals (2-5)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation Blog: Royals Review
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Matt Manning (0-0, 1.50 ERA) vs. LHP Kris Bubic (0-1, 67.50 ERA)

Game 9 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Manning 6.0 10.5 0.0 4.52 0.1
Bubic 0.2 0.0 28.6 12.02 -0.1

Matt Manning was Detroit’s first-round pick at No. 9 in the 2016 MLB draft straight out of high school. It took him until last season to finally break into the majors, and like a lot of greenhorn hurlers, he faced some struggles in his debut campaign. In 18 appearances — all starts — he put up a 5.80 ERA over 85 13 innings with a 4.62 FIP and a 1.51 WHIP, surrendering 10 home runs while striking out 55, earning him a 4-7 record on the season. Saturday’s start will be his first ever against Kansas City.

Last year, the right-hander flashed a five-pitch arsenal dominated by his four-seam fastball (93.4 mph) that was used over 40% of the time, while his sinker (93.7 mph), slider (85.4 mph), changeup (87.5 mph) and curve (78.6 mph) saw 19.4%, 15.2%, 12.7% and 11.3% usage, respectively, according to Baseball Savant. Manning’s proclivities were similar in his first outing of 2022, as his four-seamer got heavy usage as usual though he reduced his sinker usage significantly and relied on his slider a bit more. Last year, he was in the bottom 4% of the league in exit velocity and K% but has seen some improvement so far, improving on those dismal numbers while also ranking in the top 3% of the league in wOBA.

Kris Bubic is a home-grown talent who was taken by the Royals in the 2018 MLB draft with the No. 40 pick out of Stanford University. The left-hander rose quickly through Kansas City’s system and broke into the bigs during the 2020 COVID season, putting up respectable numbers for a young rookie’s first time under the big lights. However, he failed to take a step forward in 2021 — even regressing a little — producing a 4.43 ERA, 5.14 FIP and 1.39 WHIP over 130 innings, in which he struck out 114 while surrendering 22 home runs.

Kansas City’s starter gets by on a simple three-pitch repertoire led by a four-seam fastball (90.9 mph), followed by his changeup (80.0 mph) and curveball (78.5 mph) that was employed 52%, 30.8% and 17.2% of the time in 2021, respectively; Bubic followed the same general usage pattern in his first start of 2021 as well. According to Baseball Savant’s 2021 MLB Percentile Rankings, he was only above average in curveball spin rate (73rd percentile) — his least-used pitch — while landing in the middle of the road (51st percentile) in average exit velocity.

Key Matchup: Matt Manning vs. Royals batters

Few people want to see Manning succeed more than yours truly, and there is a lot of hope riding on the young gun to step up his game this season. Kansas City is currently 29th in the league in OPS (.554), which breaks down into 26th in batting average (.200), 30th in on-base percentage (.258) and 28th in slugging (.296) — though they are third-best when it comes to strikeouts, only whiffing 45 times over seven games. What I’m trying to say here is that this is the kind of lineup that Matty can get goin’ against and build some confidence early on. If he can hold his own, there is a good chance the Tigers can clinch the series and look for the sweep on Easter Sunday.