The special trait Alan Trammell and Jim Leyland see in Tarik Skubal

Detroit Free Press

Now, this is an introduction.

This is what you want to hear about a pitcher — any pitcher — before he makes his major league debut.

“The reports I’ve heard from (Jim) Leyland and (Alan) Trammell is, he’s throwing the living fire out of the ball and feeling good,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Gardenhire was talking about Tarik Skubal, who will make his Tigers debut tonight against the Chicago White Sox.

Throwing the living fire out of the ball.

That sounds just beautiful for a team that is starving for starting pitching. Skubal is a tall, talented lefty, who has a wicked fastball that tops out at 99.

“His fastball is pretty nasty and the breaking ball is big,” said Isaac Paredes, his teammate who faced him in Toledo. “His cutter is very good and the change-up, you know, he can use at any given time he wants. He is a very, very good pitcher.”

Nasty.

Hmm.

That’s another word you love to hear about a rookie pitcher.

This introduction is getting fascinating.

[ Detroit Tigers prospect Tarik Skubal reveals his fight vs. COVID-19: ‘It did get scary’ ]

A ‘soft-bodied 17-year-old’

“Tarik Skubal is a great Disney story,” Seattle University baseball coach Donny Harrel said late Monday night. “I mean, he really is just based on where he started and where he’s going on Tuesday.”

Seattle was the only Division I baseball program to offer Skubal a scholarship. He came out of high school throwing in mid-80s, which did nothing to suggest he would become an MLB pitcher. He wasn’t really strong and still had baby fat. “His secondary stuff was just OK at best,” Harrel said.

But Skubal had an inner drive, the competitiveness that comes from growing up in a three-bedroom house bursting at the seams with testosterone. The son of a high school basketball coach, Skubal lived with five boys — four are brothers (Trevor, Tarik, Tyler and Trent) and the fifth was a friend who moved into the house because of a family issue.

“His mindset just made him a competitive Division 1 athlete,” Harrel said.

This “soft-bodied 17-year-old,” as Harrel described him, started to get in shape and mature and changed his diet. He was relentless in the weight room, working with bands, and transforming his body.

By his sophomore year, Skubal was hitting 93 mph, sometimes 94, pitching in northern weather while getting all kinds of MLB attention. “I think I lost my hair because of all the radar guns,” Harrel joked.

Skubal was looking at a seven-figure signing bonus.

Then came the frightful Disney movie twist.

He blew out his arm and had to have Tommy John surgery.

But like any good Disney movie, this only spurred a happy ending — at least for the first movie, in what promises to be a long series of flicks. The rehab changed him. It forced him to strengthen his legs, refine his technique and become a pitcher.

 “He was relentless — he was on a mission,” Harrel said. “Baseball was not going to be taken away from him.”

He came back and regained his velocity, recording 106 strikeouts in 80 innings while also struggling with his command, walking 56. Those walks might have scared off other teams, but the Tigers took him in the ninth round.

Now, that looks like an absolute steal, and he has soared through the Tigers minor league system.

“Skubal had a just a phenomenal year last year,” Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player development, said. “There’s a real strong package there. He’s got the mentality. He’s an advanced thinker, very committed to his craft, a hard worker. And he has a big strong body with good stuff, a good arm and he’s throwing strikes. So I mean, there’s a lot lot to like there without a doubt.”

‘I … missed the phone call’

Littlefield called Skubal on Saturday.

“I actually missed the phone call and he texted me and said call me back so I did,” Skubal said. “And of course the heart was racing because I mean that’s generally what those text messages mean. … It was really cool, really exciting, awesome news. The heart was racing, you know?”

Littlefield told Skubal that he was going to Chicago with the club, technically as a taxi squad player. But the plan was to have him start on Tuesday.

Casey Mize got the same call; he’ll start on Wednesday.

“We were both walking out to stretch (on Sunday),” Skubal said. “And we both didn’t know that the other one had got the phone call. And he’s like, ‘Hey, did you get a phone call last night?’ I was like, yeah, and then we both kind of like, had our little moment. You know, it was really exciting.”

[ Why is Tarik Skubal so dang competitive? Only a father knows ]

Skubal had COVID-19 earlier this summer, which has slowed his development. In his last outing, Skubal threw 46 pitches. He is still being built up, so this promotion came “out of the blue.”

He will be on a pitch count, probably around 50 pitches.

And now, he is about to make his debut.

“You will see some some excited nervousness to start but you’ll see him take some big breaths,” Harrel said. “He’s got a great great routine and then you’ll see him zoned in just like he always has been, because he’s been built to get to this moment.”

Now, there’s no telling what he will do. All rookies struggle at some point.

But when you hear things like: 

Throwing the living fire out of the ball.

Nasty.

And built to get to this moment.

It gets exciting.

That’s exactly what you want to hear about the rookie before he makes his debut.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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