Well, well, well…no doubt the Minnesota Twins did not expect to be looking up at the Detroit Tigers at this point. The streaking Tigers have won four of their last five series, and tied the fifth, despite a litany of injuries to the pitching staff. Suddenly they’re one more hot stretch of baseball from creeping into the wild card picture, and sitting in third place in the AL Central division. With these two teams matching up for eight straight games, the Twins may decide whether the Tigers continue their push toward .500, or finally run out of steam.
The Twins can empathize with pitching issues, as injuries and ineffectiveness from their staff sank their playoff chances almost from the first month of the season. The Twins’ staff is third worst in baseball by FIP, and 4th worst by ERA. Of course, the Tigers staff is overall not much better, but they’ve seemingly managed to confine their worst performances to blowouts, limiting the game to game damage and still winning plenty over the past two months. Meanwhile, the Twins went 9-15 in April, are 3-7 in their last 10 games, and have yet to put up a winning month.
With the Tigers pitching staff held together by a strong backend of the bullpen and not much else, a good performance from Tarik Skubal would really help carry the Tigers through the next stretch of 10 games. Hopefully, beyond that they’ll start getting a few important names off the injured list, though Spencer Turnbull won’t be among them until at least sometime in August.
After a really rough start in April, Skubal really turned a corner in May and June. Through 10 starts he posted a 3.23 ERA and 3.71 FIP with a spectacular 32.5 strikeout rate. As a result, Skubal leads all rookie pitchers in strikeouts with 100 punchouts in 82 2⁄3 innings.
He’s done some interesting things along the way. Skubal’s year began with a mysterious loss of spin on his fastball, and that has carried through, but it hasn’t really diminished the effectiveness of his heater. The angle, velocity, and late life have remained plenty enough to make it a very effective fastball. The problem has largely been command. But he’s also added several other wrinkles, throwing a sinker to get surprise strikes down in the zone, and mixing in a pretty nasty overhand curveball more often against right handers. Those elements have helped his fastball, while the changeup and slider have been good for plenty of whiffs along the way.
In his last outing, against the Chicago White Sox, Skubal struggled to put away hitters on a couple occasions, giving up two strike hits and ultimately allowing five runs in five innings, his worst start since April 30th. Of course, the White Sox are one of the scarier outfits in baseball right now. Still, Skubal’s penchant for the occasional mistake pitch has his home run rate quite high, and keeping the hard-hitting Twins in the park will be the key for him on Thursday night.
Detroit Tigers (40-47) at Minnesota Twins (35-50)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m. ET, Target Field
SB Nation site: Twinkie Town
Pitching Matchup: LHP Tarik Skubal (5-7, 4.35 ERA) vs. RHP J.A. Happ (4-4, 6.09 ERA)
Game 88 Pitching Matchup
J.A. Happ seemingly needs no introduction. Now 38 years old, the journeyman lefty topped out as a solid mid-rotation starter for the Toronto Blue Jays circa 2015-2018, but is no longer that pitcher. With his velocity down, the whiffs lacking, and ball flying out of the part more regularly, Happ has been no more than a stopgap measure for the Twins this year. Last time out, he gave up two home runs and departed in the fifth with five runs charged against the Kansas City Royals.
Happ still throws a ton of fastballs. His six-foot, five inch frame presents a bit of a tough angle, but at 90-91 mph, throwing 70 percent heaters is a recipe for disaster. Happ mixes in a sinker 15 percent of the time, but the other 55 percent are fourseamers that are quite hittable when Happ makes a mistake. He mixes in his slider and a splitter against right handers, but he survives on fastball command. If the Tigers are reasonably patient, they’re going to get some fastballs over the middle to hammer.
Key Matchup: Tigers vs. weak southpaws
Early in the season, the Tigers really struggled with left handers, but the situation is radically different at this point. Jonathan Schoop has heated up to feast on lefties, while the emergence of both Eric Haase and Jake Rogers at the plate has come with a penchant for some lefty mashing. The Tigers will also have Akil Baddoo showing out in the leadoff spot against the organization that let him go, and cannot be feeling good about that fact.