When Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal walked off the mound Sunday, one out into the sixth inning, the fans at Comerica Park gave him a standing ovation.
It was the first such honor in Skubal’s MLB career — spectators weren’t allowed last year due to COVID-19 concerns — especially in his home ballpark.
“There’s some energy you can feed off of that you don’t have to create yourself,” Skubal said Sunday. “It’s awesome to have fans back.”
For now, the Tigers are limited to about 8,000 fans per game, as implemented by a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services order. Skubal said he hopes the capacity at Comerica Park will increase as the season continues.
But that decision is out of the 24-year-old’s control. What he can control, however, is his performance. He gave the Tigers (2-1) 5⅓ innings of two-run ball, with four strikeouts, and departed with the lead in what ended as a 9-3 loss to Cleveland.
“He made pitches today and really did a good job of getting us all the way into the sixth with very minimal damage,” manager AJ Hinch said Sunday. “I was proud of him for his first outing. For a young pitcher to maintain his composure, I was pretty impressed by that.”
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In the first inning, Skubal faced self-inflicted adversity. Cleveland’s best player, Jose Ramirez, singled with two outs on a line drive to left field. After one pitch to Eddie Rosario, Skubal noticed Ramirez taking too big of a lead off the base.
He tried to pick him off.
And he would have done so, had his throw not gone past the glove of first baseman Harold Castro. Ramirez was credited with a steal and advanced to third base on Skubal’s throwing error.
“He had the guy picked off,” Hinch said. “Just couldn’t execute the play and didn’t complete the ball. Still, he didn’t concede and (didn’t) unravel.”
Rosario finished his at-bat with a single to right on a 3-2 count, scoring Ramirez for a 1-0 lead.
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Skubal tossed two strikes — both fastballs — to Franmil Reyes before getting him to fly out to center on a 96.5 mph fastball for the innings’s third out.
“I just wanted to stay in attack mode,” Skubal said. “Stay going after guys, not getting behind. Getting strike one, strike two and trying to get guys out right away. That’s the mentality I take into the first inning, and that’s the same mentality I need to take throughout the rest of my outing.”
He was solid the rest of the way, allowing one base runner in the second inning (a double by Yu Chang), one in the third (a walk to Jordan Luplow), none in the fourth and none in the fifth.
Simply, Skubal got better as the game unfolded.
“Obviously frustrating,” Skubal said. “I don’t want to give up 180 feet free like that. But just getting back to controlling what I can control. That play is already over. You can’t let it be in your mind too much longer.”
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Although Skubal got the first out in the sixth inning, he walked Cesar Hernandezon four pitches, follwed by a Ramirez double to put two runners in scoring position. Hinch called on left-hander Daniel Norris, who got the final two outs, but allowed a second earned run on Skubal’s tab on a groundout by Rosario.
“Four-pitch walks are going to come back to bite you every once in a while,” Skubal said. “Other than that, I thought I did well going after guys, attack hitters, getting soft contact early. A lot of fly balls today. It was good. I’ll take it.”
The bullpen didn’t help Skubal’s pursuit of his second career win — Norris, Buck Farmer and Tyler Alexander allowed seven runs of their own over the final 3⅔ innings —but the 6-foot-3 left-hander was proud of the way he competed. Skubal got seven swings-and-misses — six with his four-seam fastball — and 14 called strikes.
Skubal used 52 fastballs, 26 sliders, five curveballs and four splitters. His slider was effective in getting him soft contact, both on the ground and through the air.
“I threw a lot of sliders today,” Skubal said. “I think every curveball I threw was a strike, so just being able to do that and get guys off the heater the best I can.”
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Keeping his composure and using his slider more often were two steps in the right direction for the up-and-comer in the Tigers’ organization.
This was Skubal’s ninth game in the majors, and he keeps flashing signs of future dominance. As he gets more big-league reps, it seems like his entire body of work will prosper.
“The one thing I’ve noticed about Tarik in my short time with him in spring training, and then obviously this start,” Hinch said, “is he can control himself after some issues. … I like that he can pull himself together.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.