Skubal’s offspeed command keys 6-K start

Detroit Tigers

One pitch after another, Tarik Skubal kept coming after Bryce Harper. Only one of them was a fastball.

Skubal was trying to strand runners at second and third base Wednesday and find a way out of a third-inning jam he created with back-to-back walks to open the frame. Harper was trying to stay alive in the at-bat, awaiting a youthful mistake from a 24-year-old lefty who made his share of them last year.

After Harper fouled off a changeup and slider — the pitches he whiffed on to begin the at-bat — catcher Wilson Ramos signaled for the fastball. Skubal shook it off and went back to the slider, a move that would have been inconceivable for him last season.

“I showed him a fastball away [earlier] and I missed away a little bit, and he took it really well,” Skubal explained after the Tigers’ 2-0 loss to the Phillies. “And then we were going to go in, but I shook to another slider just because I didn’t want to miss in the middle [of the strike zone] and have some damage done. I’d rather live with him hitting a slider.”

He didn’t have to. Skubal’s 2-2 slider, the eighth pitch of the at-bat, dove across the plate and out of the zone as Harper swung and missed for Skubal’s sixth and final strikeout of the day.

“I feel like prior to this in my career, I’ve never thrown one fastball in the whole at-bat,” Skubal said. “Usually it’s 1, 2, 3. So being able to throw offspeed like that, it’s obviously encouraging — and not spraying my offspeed, but knowing where I want them.”

Up next came Alec Bohm, who has faced Skubal in Class A ball and again in the Double-A Eastern League. They battled for seven pitches this time, with Bohm working his way out of an 0-2 count. Skubal made a face after flopping a curveball in the zone that Bohm fouled off.

“I thought I had him,” Skubal said. “He has really quick hands, and his ability to foul that pitch off, I was like, ‘Wow, good job.’”

On the seventh and final pitch of the at-bat — Skubal’s 70th of the day — he went to the slider. Bohm popped it up into foul territory and slammed his bat to the ground as Skubal escaped his self-inflicted mess and ended a wild outing.

Skubal fell an inning short of his scheduled four, but not because he was hit hard. Bohm’s second-inning single was the only hit Skubal allowed. But lack of fastball command cost him three walks and extra labor for six strikeouts, pushing his pitch count. In a regular-season game, that would have put manager A.J. Hinch in a pinch, taxing his bullpen. In Spring Training, it was a test for Skubal to survive without his fastball, and a further step in his quest for a rotation spot.

“We were hoping to get him another inning,” Hinch said, “but that inning was probably more valuable than actually going out for a fourth inning.”

Skubal threw just 38 of 70 pitches for strikes, but 12 were swings and misses — eight of them off his secondary pitches. He struck out three in the second inning, all on different pitches — Odúbel Herrera chasing the curve, Darick Hall on fastballs, and Ronald Torreyes looking at a changeup.

“I’ll take it,” Skubal said. “Fastball command is what I’m going to take away. I thought everything else was really good.”

Jiménez struggles
Skubal’s early exit meant a fourth-inning entrance for Joe Jiménez against a Phillies lineup that was glad to see fastballs again. They hit a home run and back-to-back doubles — all off fastballs — for two runs in two-thirds of an inning. The average exit velocity off his fastball was 100.7 mph.

“He’s struggled, two outings in a row for him,” Hinch said. “It looks like he’s either not confident or not able to land his breaking ball very easily, and the hitters are picking that up pretty early in his delivery.”

Wily Peralta remains absent from Tigers camp and is unlikely to get to Lakeland, Fla., and clear intake testing and protocols before the team heads north. The veteran swingman, who signed a Minor League deal last month, appears likely to open the season in Minor League camp.

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