Kansas City, Mo. — The last time the Tigers swept a series in Kansas City, Justin Verlander, Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello were chucking. That was in 2014.
It’s happened again, seven years later, this time with a couple of rookies taking lead on the mound. After Casey Mize subdued the Royals Tuesday night, lefty Tarik Skubal both finessed and powered his way through six strong innings Wednesday as the Tigers completed the three-game sweep with a 6-5 win at Kauffman Stadium.
“They’re growing up fast, aren’t they?” manager AJ Hinch said after the game. “They are doing a great job of growing up in the big leagues, taking the responsibility and going with it.”
The Tigers are giving a little preview of what they hope will be a rotation as dominant as those Verlander led a decade or so back. Mize, Skubal and Thursday night in Anaheim, right-hander Matt Manning will make his big-league debut.
“I think it’s awesome,” Skubal said. “I’m very excited to watch (Manning) pitch tomorrow night. It’s an exciting time for us right now.”
Skubal, who keeps looking more polished and composed with each successive start, struck out seven in his six innings. He deftly kept the Royals hitters off balance with his change-up and slider, pairing one or the other off his 96-mph four-seam fastball.
“Nine right-handed hitters in their lineup, so I knew the change-up was going to be a huge pitch for me,” Skubal said. “Just try to work down and expand the zone and let the fastball play up. It was a big pitch going into this game, especially after my last outing when I didn’t have any feel for it.”
He induced six whiffs on nine swings at his change-up, also getting four called strikes. With his slider, the Royals whiffed on all four swings. In all, Skubal got 16 swings and misses and 10 called strikes.
“Slowly but surely we’re seeing him develop,” Hinch said before the game. “We’re in this era where we want these young pitchers to get to the big leagues fast and give us something to dream on, and then we want them to act like they’ve been here for five years and execute every pitch.
“Our patience with him is paying off.”
The three runs off Skubal were produced by home run balls — his one lingering menace this season. Adalberto Mondesi, in his first at-bat after a long stay on the injured list, drove a 1-2 fastball into the left-center field seats. Then with one on in the third, Salvador Perez ambushed a first-pitch change-up for a two-run homer to left.
Skubal has yielded 16 home runs this season, but it has not deterred him from attacking the strike zone.
In fact, his response to the two home runs Wednesday was telling. Not only did he lock the Royals’ offense up over the next three innings, he challenged both of those hitters with the same pitches they hit out in their next at-bats.
“His best stuff is good enough,” Hinch said. “He can get guys out a in a lot of different ways. I don’t think he’s intimidated by anybody. Those guys on the other side get paid to hit and sometimes they get you.
“It won’t change Tarik’s approach ever.”
The Royals are reeling, losing six straight and 11 of their last 12. Compounding their woes, starting pitcher Brady Singer left after three innings with shoulder tightness.
Still, the Tigers, who were shut down for three innings by hard-throwing right-hander Carlos Hernandez, trailed 3-1 entering the seventh inning.
Willi Castro changed the narrative with one swing. With Niko Goodrum (walk) on first, he belted a 3-2 slider from reliever Greg Holland nearly into the fountains in right-center field to tie the game. His sixth homer of the season traveled 421 feet.
“He’s getting some confidence at the plate and he’s starting to hunt the right pitches,” Hinch said. “We talk about a lot of other guys outside of Willi, but Willi is still a very young player at this level. He’s learning and growing and dealing with adversity for the first time.
“And he’s coming out of it nicely.”
Castro set up the Tigers’ fifth run, too, in a very different way. After Goodrum singled with one out in the eighth, he hit a ground ball to the vacated right side of the infield, moving Goodrum to third. Just a traditional good piece of situational hitting that paid off when Goodrum scooted home on yet another wild pitch, this one from lefty Jake Brentz.
It was the second run the Tigers scored on a wild pitch.
“When it comes together, it’s a fun team, it’s a good team,” Hinch said. “They are upbeat and we’re prepared. The players are responding. As much as it’s hitting and the young pitching, it’s Niko Goodrum going from third to home on a close ball — how big is that play in a one-run game?
“It’s all these plays that create the winning culture. It’s not just the big topics.”