Minneapolis — Tarik Skubal served notice Saturday night.
In his first three starts, he was like a colt taking his first steps — a little wobbly at times, a little unsure. But against the Twins at Target Field, facing this potent lineup for the second time in seven days, he was in full gallop right out of the gate.
If there was ever any doubt about the legitimacy of his lofty prospect status, this should dispel it. In a critical game, Skubal locked up the Twins offense for six innings.
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“He’s starting to settle in,” said Lloyd McClendon, who filled in for Ron Gardenhire who left in the sixth inning with a stomach virus. “The sweaty palms are gone and he’s starting to believe he belongs and that’s important.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Skubal’s effort did not result in victory.
The Twins rallied for two runs against Jose Cisnero in the ninth and stole a 4-3 win. It was the fourth straight loss for the Tigers, and this one stung.
BOX SCORE: Twins 4, Tigers 3
“Our last four losses have been gut-wrenching losses,” McClendon said. “We are actually playing pretty good baseball. That’s the reality of things. You lose four in a row and people think you’re going in the tank.
“But the fact is, we’ve played good baseball…At this level it’s awfully hard to win baseball games. Things have to go right for you. In the last four games, things just haven’t gone right for us.”
That was absolutely the case in the ninth. Cisnero walked Josh Donaldson to start it. Nelson Cruz hit a hard ground ball up the middle that caromed off Cisnero’s backside for an infield hit.
After Jake Cave struck out, Miguel Sano slapped a single to left to tie the game. Then with two outs, speedy Byron Buxton hit a ground ball to short. Willi Castro charged and made a strong throw, but Buxton beat it out.
“He charged the ball, but Buxton might be the best runner in baseball,” McClendon said. “Especially on a swinging bunt. It was a tough play. I think Willi did everything he could.”
Loss aside and in the broader view, this was Skubal’s pronouncement of arrival.
“I felt pretty good, I felt comfortable,” Skubal said. “I was confident. I felt like I did a good job preparing for this start and it went well.”
His delivery looked smooth. His fastball rang 97 mph on the radar gun in the first inning. He mixed in, no, he commanded his three other pitches — the slider, curveball and, especially, his change-up, which he was pairing expertly with the slider.
Turns out, the change-up, which he threw 14 times without any damage, was a new wrinkle.
“I talked to (Matthew) Boyd and asked him how he threw his change-up,” Skubal said. “I wasn’t confident with the grip I was using or with the movement I was getting. So, I talked to Boyd and I actually changed it up between starts.”
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He rotated the seams in his grip, giving his finger something to catch on as he was releasing it. It helped him push down through the pitch, getting the sink and fading action he was looking for.
In Comerica Park seven days ago, Skubal got six swings and misses in five innings. He had seven after three innings Saturday and 14 in six innings.
He dispatched 10 straight hitters, before walking Donaldson in the fourth. He didn’t give up a hit until the fifth.
He struck out Sano in the third inning, using a fastball-slider-change-up sequence. Sano was late on the first two, way early on the change-up. He dotted the inside corner with a 97-mph fastball to get Ryan Jeffers looking.
He got Nelson Cruz to ground into a double-play, again sequencing his pitches to get to the change-up. He threw four straight fastballs to Cruz, the last three at 95 mph, and then pulled the string and had Cruz way out front of the change-up.
“He hit a 2-0 change-up for a home run off me last time,” Skubal said. “I threw fastball up and in, two in a row and he didn’t move. He kept his elbow in there. So I could feel he was sitting on off-speed. I just threw the change-up down and away and was able to get him reaching for it.”
After giving up back-to-back singles to Brent Rooker and Sano in the fifth — both right-handed hitters who took him to right field — Skubal threw back-to-back sliders to left-handed hitting Eddie Rosario. Rosario bounced it right back to Skubal, who started a 1-6-3 double-play.
Jake Cave, who ran for Rooker and went to third on Sano’s hit, scored on the double-play, which seemed to anger Skubal. He punched out Buxton on three pitches to end the fifth.
“I wasn’t second-guessing the decision,” he said. “We were up one and Buxton was on deck. He’s really fast so the odds of a punch-out or double-play were low. I was just upset about giving up back-to-back hits, I guess.”
After pitching around a lead-off walk in the sixth, Skubal was greeted in the dugout by pitching coach Rick Anderson — congratulations on a job well done.
Six innings, two hits, one run, six strikeouts, 14 swings and misses, the average exit velocity on the 12 balls the Twins, the playoff-bound Twins, put in play was a meek-ish 88 mph.
Given all the elements — the Tigers having lost three straight and trying to hang in the wild card race, facing the thumping Twins in back-to-back starts — Skubal’s performance was masterful.
Meanwhile, the Tigers were having their own issues with Twins starter Kenta Maeda. Victor Reyes started the game by ambushing a hanging slider, knocking it over the wall in right field. It was the only slider Maeda hung on this night.
He retired 18 straight Tigers hitters until Jonathan Schoop worked a walk and aggressively went to third on a single to left, a hard-hit single, by Miguel Cabrera.
That ended Maeda’s day. Manager Rocco Baldelli brought in right-hander Tyler Clippard who had stranded all six runners he’d inherited this season. That streak came to an end in one pitch.
Jeimer Candelario singled Schoop home to put the Tigers up 2-1. And after Willi Castro singled to load the bases, Jorge Bonifacio singled and brought in Cabrera.
The Tigers, though, got nothing else out of the bases-loaded, no-out situation. Christin Stewart forced a runner at the plate, Austin Romine struck out and Isaac Paredes flew out to center.
“We had bases loaded and no outs and couldn’t come up with the big hit,” McClendon said. “When that happens, it tends to come back to haunt you.”
Joe Jimenez took over for Skubal and struck out Cruz and Cave to start the seventh. But he hung a slider to Sano and it ended up in the second deck in left. Sano stood at home plate and admired the shot for a good while, long enough to draw words from Jimenez.
The two continued to jaw at each other, even as Jimenez was removed from the game.
Sano told Twins reporters, “Last year he struck me out with a slider (Aug. 31, 2019) and said, ‘Get the (bleep) out of here.'”
Sano said Jimenez did the same to Cruz and vowed to celebrate every home run he gets off Jimenez going forward.