Tarik Skubal takes another step toward securing spot in Tigers rotation

Detroit News

Chris McCosky | The Detroit News

Dunedin, Fla. — If you were hellbent to do so, you could come up with logical and reasonable arguments against Tarik Skubal starting the season in the Tigers’ rotation.

He’s still young (24). He went from Double-A to the big leagues last year and only threw 32 innings over seven starts. He’s far from a finished product. He still needs seasoning. And besides, do you want to use up all his innings at the beginning of the season, in bad weather? Plus, what are you going to do with the veteran pitchers the Tigers brought in? Did they pay Jose Urena $3.25 million and Julio Teheran potentially $3 million (if he makes the team) to pitch out of the bullpen?

You can go on and on, if you’re so inclined.

Or, you can watch him pitch and just toss all those arguments out the window.

“He’s ready, mentally and physically,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said after Skubal threw three scoreless, one-hit, four-strikeout innings in a 10-6 loss to the Blue Jays Thursday.

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He went through 11 Blue Jays hitters, most of their regular lineup, in 50 pitches. The only hit was a two-strike, opposite-field knock by Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., who earlier mashed a three-run homer off starter Michael Fulmer.

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Skubal struck out Marcus Semien and Alejandro Kirk with a splitter. He froze Teoscar Hernandez with a 1-2 curveball. He froze Rowdy Tellez with a 93-mph fastball. His fastball topped out at 96.

“He was great,” Hinch said. “He’s got some weapons to use and he’s using them. I liked how he backed them off the plate (with inside fastballs) a couple of times. He was landing late-in-the-count breaking balls for strikes. He got some swings-and-misses.”

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And even though the splitter is a new pitch for him, he seems to full confidence in it.

“The best part of that is he’s got no fear of throwing it early in counts or this early in camp,” Hinch said. “From the first outing, he’s been committed to using it.”

Impressive, too, Hinch said, that Skubal seems to be able to locate it in or out of the strike zone any time he wants.

“You don’t see that pitch much from a lefty,” Hinch said. “Traditionally, that’s more of a right-hander’s weapon. That will create some uniqueness for him.”

Rotation spots aren’t won, or lost, in the first two starts of spring. Certainly not. But Skubal is pitching like he won’t be denied.

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“There’s still some development that needs to be done,” Hinch said. “But every step along the way he’s been able to adapt to that level. He’s entered this camp with the perfect demeanor and the perfect approach and focus to try to win a job.

“And he’s on his way to doing that if he continues.”

Fulmer recalibrating

Fulmer came into his start Thursday with a plan to work on elevating his four-seam fastball. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Fulmer got to the big leagues and became the American League Rookie of the Year on the strength of his power sinker.

It’s going to take him a minute to adjust his sights.

“I think it can be a good pitch for me,” he said, after getting tagged for three home runs (and seven runs total) in two-plus innings. “I tried to throw a few of them in there today but every time I tried to throw it up, it came back down.”

Fulmer threw 13 four-seams, 93-94 mph. Five of them were put in play with an average exit velocity of 102.7 mph. George Springer and Guerrero both homered off the pitch.

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“If you go up, you’ve got to go up and if you go down, you have to go down,” Hinch said. “Today the execution was in the middle and some damage happened. The sightline is the key for a guy who hasn’t done that a ton.”

Fulmer’s most effective pitches were his slider and curveball, and he lamented not using them more often. So did Hinch.

“The usage today was very hard,” Hinch said. “Hopefully, he will use his breaking ball more in a real game setting. He didn’t use it until the 10th hitter and a lot of damage had already been done. He’s got good pitches, but he’s going to have to mix them up a little bit.”

Derek Hill Show

Hinch said afterward if there was such a thing as the Little Caesars’ Player of Game award for spring games, center fielder Derek Hill would’ve won hands down.

“He was really good,” Hinch said. “I don’t know what the Grapefruit League record is for putouts in a seven-inning game, but he must’ve come pretty close.”

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Hill tracked and caught nine balls in center field. Two were spectacular plays. He took an extra-base hit away from Bo Bichette in the first inning with a full-layout dive and catch in right-center. Then in the third, he raced back to the wall in center and timed his leap perfectly to take a double away from Kirk.

Oh, and not for nothing, Hill had a line drive triple to center field and an RBI single.

“He hit the ball hard to the middle of the field,” Hinch said. “He’s a very intriguing player when he can contribute on both sides.”

Baseball is hard

The struggle is real right now for prospect Spencer Torkelson. The first pick in the draft last year struck out two more times and had a throwing error from third base. He’s hitless this spring with eight strikeouts in 13 at-bats.

But the good news is, as Hinch said after the game, none of this goes on his permanent record.

“He’s going to have better camps than this in the future,” he said. “We’re going to keep rolling him out there and giving him experience. But we need to find a way for him to leave the day having some fun.”

Torkelson’s frustration level is peaking.

“It’s easy to beat yourself up when you make a mistake or punch-out,” Hinch said. “But it’s relatively meaningless, especially in a career that’s just getting started. It’s no fun, what he’s going through. He wants to make a big impression and it feels like it’s piling up on him.

“But we still think he’s a pretty good player.”

Around the horn

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop was finally cleared to enter camp on Thursday. Hinch said Schoop will get a couple of days of live batting practice and defensive work on the back fields before maybe getting some at-bats as designated hitter this weekend.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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