PITTSBURGH — Once again, Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal struggled in the first inning.
He bounced back for perfect second and third innings before manager AJ Hinch removed him from the game. Through 25 starts this season, the 24-year-old has a 6.48 ERA in the first frame but often improves for the rest of his outing.
This time, Skubal didn’t get the chance to continue rolling in the Tigers’ 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in Monday’s series opener at PNC Park. Reliever Kyle Funkhouser conceded four runs in the seventh inning to squander a one-run lead.
Skubal is officially pitching with a limited workload — no more than three innings per start — for the remainder of the 2021 season. The Tigers believe this is the best way to protect the esteemed rookie from an injury in his first full MLB season. (In Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds, the Tigers benched fellow rookie Casey Mize after three perfect innings.)
Trailing by two runs, the Tigers (65-74) loaded the bases against Pirates starter Bryse Wilson with one out in the sixth inning. He had retired 12 batters in a row until Robbie Grossman dropped a double into the right-field corner.
Jeimer Candelario (walk) and Eric Haase (single) followed, putting pressure on Wilson. Although Niko Goodrum has a .219 average over 71 games, he stepped into the batter’s box with the bases loaded and delivered.
Goodrum shot a first-pitch slider down the right-field line. The ball was deflected by first baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo, slowing down the play enough for Grossman and Candelario to score easily and tie the game, 2-2, in the sixth.
Pinch-hitter Miguel Cabrera delivered a sacrifice fly for a 3-2 lead.
The seventh inning didn’t go as planned for Funkhouser, who had just pitched a perfect sixth. The first four batters reached safely: Ben Gamel (walk), Cole Tucker (single), pinch-hitter Colin Moran (walk) and Ke’Bryan Hayes (single).
After Gamel’s walk, Funkhouser balked to advance him to second base. Two batters later, the bases-loaded single from Hayes scored two runs. Just like that, the Pirates controlled a 4-3 lead
A single from Tsutsugo drove home two more runs and chased Funkhouser with two outs in the seventh inning. Funkhouser threw 32 pitches (18 strikes) over his 1⅔ innings.
Lefty reliever Derek Holland made the final out, then pitched a scoreless eighth.
Another homer vs. Skubal
The Pirates burned Skubal from the beginning.
After Hayes beat a throw from third baseman Candelario for a leadoff infield single, Kevin Newman crushed Skubal’s two-seam fastball for a two-run home run to left-center field. He gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead in the first inning.
It marked Newman’s fifth homer in 126 games this season.
Skubal has allowed 31 home runs in 2021, the fourth-most in MLB and third-most in the American League. He trails only Texas Rangers’ Jordan Lyles (36 homers), Washington Nationals’ Patrick Corbin (34) and Rangers’ Mike Foltynewicz (34).
Despite dealing with two more singles, Skubal escaped the first inning without further damage. He retired back-to-back batters after a mound visit from assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves, who is filling in for pitching coach Chris Fetter.
Skubal then tossed up perfect second and third frames, using 11 pitches for each inning. He struck out Bryan Reynolds swinging and Tsutsugo looking at a pair of 97 mph two-seamers, setting both of them up with well-placed sliders.
He gave up two runs on four hits over three innings, striking out four batters without a walk. Of Skubal’s 50 pitches, 36 went for strikes in his shortened start.
Wilson — Skubal’s opposition — countered by pitching six innings, allowing three runs on six hits and two walks. Nearly untouchable until the third time through the Tigers’ batting order, Wilson struck out four and threw 57 of 83 pitches for strikes.
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.