DETROIT – The Tigers have lost so many starting pitchers to injuries, they’ve barely had enough to put together a five-man rotation. But at least they have an ace.
Don’t count on manager A.J. Hinch giving Tarik Skubal that title. The last thing he wants to do is put any more pressure on the 25-year-old left-hander.
“We’ve expected Tarik to take a step forward. He’s in the process of doing that now, whether we have the Opening Day rotation or not,” Hinch said after Skubal’s latest gem, seven scoreless innings with only two hits in Wednesday’s 5-0 win over the Twins. “This is the Tarik Skubal that we’ve been dreaming of and wanting.”
But with each outing, it’s becoming clear what the southpaw means to this team — not just right now, but going forward in the Tigers’ quest to build a contender.
But especially right now.
“In a rotation that’s been battered and bruised — we’ve seen relievers make starts, we’ve seen guys come up from the Minor Leagues and make starts — Skoob has held it down for us,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “I’ve got a pallet of bubble wrap on the way to make sure that he wears everywhere he goes.”
Skubal is the only starter from the Tigers’ season-opening rotation currently pitching in Detroit. The other four are on the injured list, as is Michael Pineda, who joined in mid-April. Joey Wentz could be headed for the injured list at Triple-A Toledo after leaving his spot start for Detroit on Tuesday.
As much as Tigers fans can discuss tough luck, they can thank the stars that the last healthy starter is putting up one of the best opening stretches by a Tigers pitcher in 40 years.
“We’re all trying to do collectively the same job,” Skubal said. “To be able to do it and pick guys up, whether it’s injuries or crazy things going on, is obviously huge for our job.”
Skubal’s seven scoreless innings Wednesday lowered his ERA to 2.15. According to Elias Sports Bureau, just two other Tigers pitchers in the past 40 years have had such a stingy ERA through their first 10 starts: Justin Verlander also had a 2.15 ERA in 2012, and David Wells posted a 1.83 ERA in 1993.
“He’s one of the best young pitchers in baseball,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I think we can say that at this point. I think he’s figuring some things out.
“It’s not just the fact that he’s a big guy, got a good arm and all that. He pitches at the top of the zone well. I think he goes in on righties well. The changeup’s a real weapon. The slider’s a weapon. That pitch has really tightened up for him in recent outings, and he’s tough. He was tough before these adjustments. He’s getting even tougher.”
Skubal’s 103 pitches Wednesday included five pitch selections, all thrown at least 10 times, led by 31 fastballs. All five — fastball, sinker, slider, changeup and curveball — drew at least one swing and miss and two called strikes. His velocity ranged from a 75 mph curveball to a 97 mph fastball that fanned Trevor Larnach to strand Minnesota’s only runner in scoring position in the first inning.
“After that, it was like playing a video game for me,” Barnhart said. “It’s pretty easy when it’s going like that. You just make sure you’re sequencing your pitches the right way and let him do his thing. …
“He’s got four elite pitches, in my opinion. Five, if you include the four-seam and the two-seam. When he’s able to place him the way he was tonight and the way he has been, you’re able to create a lot of deception for hitters.”
Skubal’s 13 swings and misses included four off of the changeup, a pitch Skubal brought back a year ago after an experiment with a splitter. He’s now confident enough in it that he racked up back-to-back strikeouts with it in the fifth.
The two base hits had exit velocities that would have earned dirty looks in traffic on the highways outside the ballpark. Jorge Polanco flared a 57.9 mph blooper just out of second baseman Jonathan Schoop’s reach and into shallow right field for a first-inning single. Gio Urshela hit a fourth-inning bouncer to third at 65.4 miles per hour for a one-out single in the fourth. The expected batting average on the hits was .460 combined. Just two balls off Skubal reached 100 mph in exit velocities, and one was a groundout.
It was Skubal’s fourth scoreless outing in his past five starts. He has allowed three runs on 17 hits in 32 innings in that span.
“He was really good,” Hinch said. “We’re developing a really good pitcher here. His mentality’s in a good place. His execution’s in a good place. His production has been elite. And so, it’s been fun to watch.”