Detroit Tigers rookie left-hander Tarik Skubal turned in his best outing of the season — and his MLB career — against the Houston Astros on Sunday.
Skubal completed seven innings for the first time in his career. He struck out nine, all swinging, while getting 21 swings-and-misses.
The Tigers (34-44) didn’t waste the efficient outing, but they took their time finding a way to win. Robbie Grossman dropped a walk-off bunt with one out in the bottom of the 10th inning, creating just enough time for Akil Baddoo to score for a 2-1 win in the series finale at Comerica Park.
It was the first walk-off sacrifice bunt by the Tigers since 1977.
“We went over a couple situations right before I went up to the plate,” Grossman said. “I got the sign from Chip (Hale, third base coach). I didn’t put it where I wanted to, but I’m glad I got it down and got it to the pitcher’s hands.”
The Tigers split the four-game series with the Astros, giving manager AJ Hinch a gift: His new squad won five of seven games this season against his old squad. Detroit has a 26-25 record since the beginning of May.
“I’m not sure we need this series necessarily to build off of,” Hinch said. “I think it’s just another reinforcement for us that we can win today’s game, we can play against good teams, we face good pitching, we beat good pitching. When you play winning baseball, you win games. I feel good with where we’re at.”
Houston starter Jake Odorizzi gave up plenty of hard contact, but the Tigers had nothing to show through his five innings. He conceded just two hits and one walk. The Houston bullpen kept the shutout rolling until Baddoo hit a game-tying RBI single into right field with two outs in the seventh inning.
Detroit’s relievers pitched even better, with scoreless eighth and ninth innings from Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto, respectively. Soto returned for the 10th inning and faced runners on second and third base with one out but escaped the jam.
The Astros had three hits, five walks and 11 strikeouts against Skubal, Cisnero and Soto.
Limited chances early, more late
Against Odorizzi, the Tigers were limited to three base runners in his five innings.
A second-inning walk from Nomar Mazara didn’t result in anything, as Daz Cameron flied out to right field and Willi Castro struck out swinging. Jake Rogers’ one-out single in the third inning was wasted by Baddoo’s fly out and Jonathan Schoop’s ground out.
The best opportunity with Odorizzi on the mound came in the fifth inning.
Cameron singled up the middle to open the frame, and Castro’s sacrifice bunt advanced him to second base. But Zack Short struck out swinging, followed by a lineout to center by Rogers. Odorizzi escaped the mini-jam after throwing 53 of 88 pitches for strikes.
“He caught some breaks,” Grossman said. “Guys hit the ball to the big part of the ballpark, and if we’re not in Detroit, those are homers. But we put up quality at-bats, one after another, and that’s all you can ask for from the guys.”
It didn’t take long for the Tigers to make the bullpen uncomfortable. In the sixth, righty reliever Cristian Javier walked Baddoo and Jeimer Candelario — sandwiched around consecutive strikeouts of Schoop and Grossman — to put runners on first and second for Mazara with two outs.
Mazara took a 3-1 fastball down the middle for a called strike before poking a full-count fastball toward second baseman Jose Altuve on the outfield grass; Altuve had an easy toss to first baseman Yuli Gurriel to keep the Tigers from scoring.
Javier walked Castro and Short with one out in the seventh, but Rogers weakly popped out. The ball didn’t leave the infield. Astros manager Dusty Baker called on Raley, a left-handed pitcher, to face Baddoo, a lefty hitter, with two outs.
Baddoo delivered a single to right field to tie the game.
“I mean, Akil, we’re trying to build a dude,” Hinch said. “We’re trying to get him comfortable and trying to build somebody that can be a staple in the lineup. He’s going to battle. It’s just experience is all he lacks against left-handed pitchers. … For me, it was hang with him, believe in him, trust him, and he came up with the big tying hit.”
The Tigers had a chance to take the lead in the eighth, but Cameron just missed a three-run home run to center field. The ball traveled 417 feet, with a .820 expected batting average, but was caught on the warning track by center fielder Myles Straw. It would have been a home run in 23 other MLB ballparks.
Skubal’s best start
Skubal, 24, held the Astros to one hit and three walks. His four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, changeup and curveball were all working at their best. And he fired 62 of 102 pitches for strikes.
Skubal struck out the side in the third inning, sending down Abraham Toro, Chas McCormick and Jason Castro. He struck out Toro three times and McCormick twice. In the fifth, Skubal stuck out the side, but hit a batter.
“The sinker, especially to this lineup, was a little better than my four-seamer was,” Skubal said. “These guys handle four-seamers really well. It’s a really offensive team, so just being able to change the view of something that’s coming in — one (type of fastball) that will run a little bit more and one that stays true.”
The only damage occurred in the fourth inning.
Jose Altuve and Straw reached on a hit-by-pitch and a walk, respectively. A four-pitch walk to Yordan Alvarez with one out put Skubal in a bases-loaded situation. Carlos Correa then tagged enough of a fastball for a sacrifice fly to center field — and a 1-0 lead.
Skubal threw 11 pitches in the first inning, 11 in the second, 14 in the third, 24 in the fourth, 17 in the fifth, 11 in the sixth and 14 in the seventh. Outside of the fourth frame, he only allowed three runners to reach — Straw’s single in the first, which was erased by a double play, Castro’s hit-by-pitch in the fifth and Correa’s walk in the seventh.
For his 21 swings and misses, Skubal used all five of his pitches: Four-seam fastball (six whiffs), two-seam fastball (four whiffs), changeup (three whiffs), slider (six whiffs) and knuckle curveball (two whiffs). He chipped in 16 called strikes, and his fastball reached 97.7 mph.
“His best is good enough against anybody in the big leagues,” Hinch said. “You put a hitter up there, Tarik Skubal’s best stuff is good enough. … To me, it’s just a reminder to him. It’s nothing that he needs to do differently. He’s just got to come out and bring his best every day, and his best is good enough.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.