Tarik Skubal was a freshman pitching at Seattle University when the team played a scrimmage at what is now T-Mobile Park. He had been in the stands to watch Mariners games, as much as he could afford to while going through college, but the chance to get on a big league field, under that massive sliding roof, was awe-inspiring.
“It was the first time they kind of had those LED lights, and at the time it felt very, very cool,” the Tigers left-hander explained Tuesday. “Being able to come back, it’s kind of surreal, at times. It’s cool to think about how I was thinking mentally as a freshman in college, and then to now.”
It won’t officially be a homecoming when Skubal takes the mound there again for the Tigers in Wednesday’s series finale against the Mariners, but it’ll be a special moment in front of about 30 friends and former teammates. Skubal was born in California, went to high school in Arizona, and had a chance to pitch in front of family when the Tigers played at Oakland in April. But Seattle is where Skubal’s game really came into focus, where he rose from an undrafted prospect out of high school to a heralded pitcher at a smaller program, then worked his way back to Draft prospect following Tommy John surgery before Detroit selected him in the ninth round of the 2018 Draft.
When people hear about college ball in Seattle, the assumption might be the University of Washington. However, Skubal is one of two Seattle University products in the Majors, along with reliever Eric Yardley, currently on the injured list with the Brewers. The only other big leaguers in the school’s history are brothers Eddie and Johnny O’Brien, who broke into the Majors a week apart in Pittsburgh and comprised the Pirates’ middle infield for most of 1953.
“Whenever we played the University of Washington, I always hated them,” Skubal admitted. “It was just a good rivalry. I don’t know if they felt that way about us, but our whole team, we for sure felt that way about those guys. We wanted to beat them any chance we could.
“As far as Seattle U. goes, you’ve just got to go experience the smaller school, smaller program, but it’s one of those schools where everybody knows everybody. And then you get to experience the big city of Seattle, but it still feels small, if that makes sense.”
Ironically, Skubal’s old pitching coach at Seattle, Elliott Cribby, is now an associate head coach at Washington. His head coach from Seattle, Donny Harrel, is still there, now in his 12th season. When Skubal reached out about paying a visit, Harrel had him come watch practice and speak to the team Tuesday before their final series of the regular season.
“In college, I did kind of chase numbers a little bit, try to chase numbers and get results,” he said. “But that’s not really how it happens. You have to focus on executing pitches. It’s cool to have a good ERA or whatever, chasing numbers, but that’s pretty tough to do, because a lot of that’s out of your control. So just being able to go out there and attack and execute pitch by pitch and control your effort levels, that’s kind of what my message was for them. And I would love to hear that when I was in college, too.”
Asked how the team took it, Skubal shrugged.
“I thought I killed it,” he said.
Skubal had already been back to Seattle recently. He visited over the winter to work out at nearby Driveline Baseball and visit teammate Matthew Boyd and his family. That trip resulted in the splitter he was throwing at the start of the season that has since been tweaked in favor of a more traditional changeup.
When he takes the mound Wednesday, he’ll be looking to end an 0-6 start while putting together a more consistent outing. He looked dominant through his first four batters in his last start Friday against the Cubs, gave up two-run innings in the third and fifth, then looked strong again in the sixth.
“Just get my rhythm and my tempo down and then just execute pitches and work pitch by pitch and let everything else take care of itself,” he said.