Casey Mize was at dinner with friends in Tampa last month when he heard it.
“Hey Casey! Go Tigers!”
“War Eagle!” the man added.
Ah, Mize thought, and responded in kind. As the Auburn Tigers star whom the Detroit Tigers picked first overall last year, he spends a lot of time trying to figure out which team fans are referencing. He used to hear almost exclusively from Auburn enthusiasts. But these days, especially after he twirled a no-hitter in his Double A debut earlier this week, Detroit fans are making themselves heard.
There is almost no cause for joy at Comerica Park in 2019. The team’s record is 13–15, which may be the closest to .500 it will be all season. The Tigers’ best pitcher, 2016 Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, will miss the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Their most expensive pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann, may join him on the operating table; he recently hit the injured list with pain in his right UCL. All-Star DH Miguel Cabrera is showing his age with a .704 OPS. None of the remaining members of the roster are likely to get recognized at restaurants by anyone other than their mothers.
In 2014, the year of their last playoff appearance—an ALDS sweep at the hands of the Orioles—the Tigers drew 36,015 fans per game, seventh in the majors. So far this year they are averaging 17,071, which ranks 21st.
But in Erie, Penn., the Double A SeaWolves hold hope in their hands—and they know it.
“I get to watch the future of the Detroit Tigers’ major league rotation on a nightly basis, and it’s really, really neat,” says Erie manager Mike Rabelo. “I’m just the luckiest guy in the world getting to watch these guys pitch.”
These guys are Mize, Alex Faedo—who authored his own no-hit bid two nights earlier, although he was lifted after seven innings—and Matt Manning. Faedo is 23 and the Tigers’ first pick (No. 18) in the 2017 draft. Mize turned 22 on Wednesday. Manning is 21 and the first-rounder (No. 9) from 2016. They know exactly what is expected of them, even if they try to avoid the topic.
“There’s things we need to handle now to make that happen,” says Mize. But their mutual dream slips into conversation now and then: A few days ago, they decided they’d like to wear consecutive jersey numbers in the big leagues. Unfortunately, at the moment Faedo has No. 29, Manning has No. 30 and Mize has No. 32. Manning is probably safe, but one of the other two needs to request a switch.
These are the problems the Tigers’ young guns face. That, and what to do when one of them has yet to allow a hit through eight innings, as was the case for Mize on Monday. None of his teammates would talk to him, which drove him crazy.
“I talk to a lot of guys!” he laments. “I like to stay loose and relaxed!”
Rabelo, at the other end of the dugout, was anything but. The future of the franchise was approaching 100 pitches and the manager was approaching terror. He turned to pitching coach Mark Johnson. “You see the shoes I’m wearing?” Rabelo asked. “Nobody wants to be in these shoes right now.”
Johnson laughed. “You ain’t kidding,” he said.
The coaches wanted the righty to finish the game, or to give up a hit so they could take him out. Mize settled on the former, completing—in just 98 pitches—the first Double A no-hitter since 2017, and the first in a debut at that level since at least ’08, as far back as we have minor league game logs.
His parents, Rhonda and Jason, were watching on their living-room couch in Springville, Ala. Well, Jason was. Rhonda’s anxiety is such that she spent most of the game pacing the house. Every time Jason reacted, she ran back into the room to ask what had happened. Jason briefly created a stir when he joked with The Detroit Free-Press’s Anthony Fenech that he had skipped the game to cut the grass because, he said, “My number one lawn guy was pitching.” Jason cackles now as he requests the clarification that he was kidding. He has never missed an inning, he says.
“He is my number one lawn guy,” he adds. “That wasn’t a joke.”
In Altoona, Penn., Mize induced a popout to second base to seal his gem and bring his season ERA to an absurd 0.26—that’s one earned run in 35 innings. He has struck out 32 and walked two. In the dugout, crisis averted, Rabelo rejoiced.
“The only difference between me and a fan was that I was wearing a uniform,” he says. A SeaWolves fan, but mostly a Tigers fan.