KANSAS CITY — Before Matt Manning‘s last start at Triple-A Toledo, where he was trying to lower a 9.23 ERA and look more like the Tigers’ top pitching prospect, he looked to talk to a Major Leaguer. He looked to old friend Tarik Skubal.
They had been teammates and good friends at Double-A Erie, Spring Training, summer camp and the alternate training site before Skubal got the call to Detroit last summer. Even though they were at different levels, they were neighbors in Detroit. And yet somehow, they’d lost touch.
“I hadn’t seen Skubal in like two months,” Manning said on Tuesday, a day before Skubal pitched six quality innings in the Tigers’ 6-5 win over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. “And for some reason, I called him and we just talked for like two hours about baseball and everything. And it just calmed me down. …
“We just kind of talked about what’s going on. Seeing a familiar face and a guy you like puts you at ease of mind and comfortable and got me where I needed to be.”
As Manning sat in the Tigers’ dugout on Wednesday, his Major League debut looming on Thursday night at Angel Stadium, he didn’t have to look far to find Skubal, right in front of him on the mound. And as Skubal recovered from two home runs to work six quality innings, he provided an example Manning could take into his outing.
The win completed the Tigers’ first three-game series sweep in Kansas City since May 2014, when starters Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly all picked up victories as part of an eight-game winning streak. This time, Skubal and fellow rookie Casey Mize tossed quality starts and earned wins after Detroit used nine pitchers to take the opener.
Like Manning in Toledo, Skubal struggled with home runs early in the season, but had recovered lately. Adalberto Mondesi’s second-inning solo homer and Salvador Perez’s two-run drive in the third marked Skubal’s first multi-homer outing since May 7.
Just as Skubal seemed on the precipice of a fallback outing, the kind expected from young pitchers as they learn their way, he recovered to yield one hit — a bloop single — over his final 3 1/3 innings from there. He fanned three consecutive batters at the top of the Royals’ lineup, and seven batters for the game.
Most importantly, he kept the Tigers close enough to rally late. And when Willi Castro’s two-run homer fueled a go-ahead three-run seventh inning off the Royals’ bullpen, Skubal was in line for his third win in four starts. He has won four of five decisions since his 0-2 start to the season, and hasn’t been roughed up or knocked out early in an outing since April.
Both home runs Skubal allowed were on mistake pitches over the plate that were punished. Manning can relate, having allowed 11 homers over 32 1/3 innings in Toledo, including eight over his first three starts. Manning battled walks for a few starts after that.
Skubal followed Perez’s 17th homer of the season with a four-pitch walk to Jorge Soler to extend the Royals’ third-inning rally for Mondesi, who had homered to lead off the previous inning. Skubal attacked the strike zone, getting Mondesi to swing and miss on a changeup before fouling off a high fastball to fall into an 0-2 count. After taking back-to-back pitches out of the zone, Mondesi finally swung at a 2-2 sinker for a ground ball to end the inning.
Skubal drew swings and misses on 16 of his 91 pitches, nearly as many as the Royals put in play. Kansas City hitters whiffed on four of his nine fastballs, took two more for strikes and didn’t put any in play. He struggled to locate his curveball but stuck with it to keep hitters off balance.