Skubal confronts adversity in battle vs. Yanks

Detroit Tigers
Maybe Tarik Skubal’s Spring Training was going too smoothly.

The Tigers had seen plenty of examples of how he could dominate a lineup. Tuesday gave manager A.J. Hinch a second consecutive opportunity to see how Skubal handles himself in a jam. Better to see it now in a spring setting, a teaching moment, than discover it when the games count.

That’s one argument to be made after the Tigers’ 5-5 tie against the Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium. The flip side is that, like any other Detroit starter right now, Skubal needs to throw strikes in order to work deeper into games with more efficient pitch counts. With five walks in four-plus innings Tuesday — and eight walks over seven innings in his last two starts — that’s becoming perhaps Skubal’s final test for a rotation spot.

Fastball command is a common thread in the two outings. But for Skubal, the challenge is deeper.

“Mentally, [I was] just not where I need to be to have success,” he said after Tuesday’s outing. “I just wasn’t as aggressive as I’d like to be and wasn’t competing the way I’d like to be. That’s pretty much it.”

Skubal salvaged a scoreless performance in his most recent start last Wednesday with strikeouts on secondary pitches. But his scoreless spring ended Tuesday with his first batter, a lefty-lefty matchup. Mike Tauchman fell into a 1-2 count but fouled off a slider on the outer half of the plate to stay alive before watching a high cutter well outside the zone. When Skubal went back to the slider, Tauchman was ready, sending it 393 feet to right-center field.

“I wanted to throw a strike there, didn’t want it to get to 3-2,” Skubal said. “I wasn’t trying to expand out of the zone, just missed my location. I think that’s the right pitch, though.”

What followed was a little more frustrating for him. Skubal walked Luke Voit on four pitches, fell behind on Clint Frazier before inducing a popup on a 3-1 pitch, picked off Frazier at first base, then gave up a two-out walk to Derek Dietrich. It wasn’t any particular pitch costing Skubal command, just overall location.

“He was erratic from the very beginning,” Hinch said. “I think he was in his warmups as well. So I think the key is for him to find a correction pitch to be able to get him back in sync.”

With a 2-1 count to Kyle Higashioka, Skubal ended the threat with two of his better pitches of the afternoon, back-to-back sliders down and in that drew consecutive swings and misses.

By comparison, Skubal worked ahead against the Yankees in the second inning but was penalized with small contact — a leadoff bunt single from Tyler Wade, an 0-2 single for Ryan LaMarre, a sacrifice fly for Greg Allen and an 0-2 ground-ball single for Tauchman. A second-and-home steal attempt was thwarted to limit the damage to a run.

The Yankees put leadoff hitters on against Skubal five times in as many tries — the Tauchman home run, two singles and two walks. Voit battled him for eight pitches, fouling off back-to-back full-count offerings, to draw a walk to lead off the third frame. Skubal retired the Yanks in order from there. A chance to begin the fifth resulted in a five-pitch walk to Tauchman, at which point Hinch turned to José Cisnero with Skubal at 82 pitches.

The stuff was still impressive. Skubal sat at 94-95 mph with his fastball, topping out at 98. His dozen swings and misses included three each with his fastball, cutter and splitter. He didn’t like his splitter as much as in other outings, but his slider and curveball felt fine.

Finding efficiency will be part of the process for Skubal, just as it was for Max Scherzer a decade ago and Justin Verlander before that. That process includes a reset pitch.

“I don’t mind that he gets stressed. I mean, that’s part of pitching,” Hinch said. “He’s not always going to have his best stuff or best execution. The extra baserunners, coming out of the game early due to using up all your pitches, so to speak, it’s something that I think is a work-in-progress for him.”

Skubal will likely have one more Spring Training start Sunday to put the finishing touches on his resume, but his skipper already has a good read.

“His good days are going to be really good,” Hinch said. “His bad days, he’s gotta find a way to control it, to be able to at least give us a chance. And he did that today.”

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