Detroit Tigers rookie Tarik Skubal only expected to pitch three innings.
The 24-year-old is ending the season on a strict innings restriction (as is fellow rookie Casey Mize). Both starting pitchers should finish just below 150 innings in their second MLB seasons, preparing them for an increase in 2022.
On Saturday night, Skubal didn’t need to argue with manager AJ Hinch for more work against the Kansas City Royals. The skipper gave Skubal a fist bump upon his return to the dugout in the third inning, indicating his return for the fourth.
“I was obviously excited about that,” Skubal said.
Skubal tossed four scoreless innings, but the offense didn’t back the pitchers until Miguel Cabrera delivered a key double in the sixth inning. Scoring three runs in the sixth, and two more in the eighth, helped the Tigers fend off the Royals for a 5-1 victory at Comerica Park.
“A big night for him,” Hinch said about Cabrera. “We needed him. That was a tough game to win, even though it looked like we won comfortably at the end. But Miggy’s contribution was huge.”
The Tigers (75-79) began their three-run sixth with a questionable replay review. With Akil Baddoo (walk) standing on first base, Jonathan Schoop dropped a bloop single into shallow left-center field. On the play, Baddoo hustled to third.
The throw from shortstop Nicky Lopez to third baseman Hanser Alberto barely beat Baddoo to the bag, but the speedster was deemed safe by third base umpire Phil Cuzzi. It didn’t appear Alberto’s glove made contact with Baddoo’s jersey.
But the replay review overturned the call.
As they have all season, the Tigers responded with two outs. After Robbie Grossman’s single, Miguel Cabrera produced a two-run double to the right-field corner to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead. Jeimer Candelario followed with his MLB-leading 42nd double for a 3-1 advantage.
“You do need that big, key hit to relax everybody in the dugout,” Hinch said. “Miggy provided that.”
In the eighth inning, Royals reliever Ervin Santana loaded the bases by allowing his first three opponents to reach safely. Cabrera capitalized, drilling a ninth-pitch fastball up the middle and into center field. His single drove in two more runs to make it 5-1, Tigers.
Cabrera finished 3-for-4 with four RBIs, giving him 2,983 hits across his 19-year career. Double No. 596 came on his swing in the sixth, tying ex-Tiger Luis Gonzalez for 18th place on MLB’s all-time doubles list.
“We all know he’s going to go down as one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time,” Baddoo said. “It’s amazing to see how much fun he has and the production that he continues to bring. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m just along with the show, riding along with it.”
Piggybacking Skubal, righty reliever Drew Hutchison delivered 2⅔ innings of one-run ball. He gave way to Kyle Funkhouser with two outs in the seventh. Although Funkhouser completed the seventh, he ran into trouble in the eighth.
The Royals put two runners in scoring position for Salvador Perez, who entered Saturday with a .274 batting average and an MLB-leading 46 home runs and 115 RBIs over 152 games. Funkhouser struck him out looking with a 3-2 slider, though, for the second out.
Michael Fulmer then entered and recorded the third out by striking out Andrew Benintendi swinging with his refined curveball.
“It’s a good lesson on sequencing and how you save a bullet when you have it and use it at the right time,” Hinch said. “He’s a complete pitcher. Sequencing like that is super key, especially when you can have a calm heartbeat in the moment and make the pitch to get us back in the dugout with the lead.”
Despite the Tigers’ a four-run lead, Hinch sent Fulmer — instead of warming left-hander Ian Krol — back to the mound for the ninth. He recorded the final three outs for a four-out save, his 12th this season.
Before the sixth inning, center fielder Victor Reyes was removed from the game with right groin tightness. He was replaced in the lineup by Daz Cameron, which shuffled the outfield alignment. The severity of Reyes’ injury is unclear.
“He wanted to stay in the game,” Hinch said. “The more they assessed him, the more the medical team didn’t want to take a risk. … I’m not greatly optimistic at this point of the season. These things usually take three, five, seven days at a minimum. It’s not comfortable when you take a guy out of the game at this point of the season with something like that.”
Skubal starts, Hutchison allows run
Making his second-to-last start this season, Skubal conceded just one hit. It came in the third inning, when Edward Olivares put a slider into left field. Other than that, he was perfect and efficient through four frames.
Skubal tossed 16 pitches in the first inning, 11 in the second, nine in the third and nine in the fourth.
He only needed one strikeout — Perez in the first inning with a 96 mph fastball — because he relied on weak contact. The left-hander induced six groundouts and two flyouts, as the Royals averaged an 81.3 mph exit velocity.
“We’re also talking about how he used his changeup tonight,” Hinch said. “He was fully dedicated to using it in his short stint. Going in, he probably thought he had two, three or four innings. I haven’t told these guys how long they’re going to go, but it’s pretty predictable.”
Mixing all of his pitches, Skubal fired 14 two-seam fastballs (31%), 11 four-seam fastballs (24%), nine sliders (20%), eight changeups (18%) and three knuckle curves (7%). He generated five swings and misses: two with his two-seamer, two with his changeup and one with his four-seamer.
“When he can round out his arsenal and pitch to a certain team a certain way, and maybe the next time out it is heavy fastball usage if that’s the game plan, he can develop into a really dominant pitcher. Tonight, I thought it was awesome to watch him throw strikes and use all his pitches.”
Entering for the fifth, Hutchison lost an eight-pitch clash and walked Carlos Santana.
On the first pitch to Adalberto Mondesi, catcher Dustin Garneau allowed a passed ball to put Santana in scoring position. Mondesi responded to the situation by dropping down a bunt on the second pitch he saw, advancing Santana to third base.
Hunter Dozier’s sacrifice fly plated Santana for a 1-0 Royals lead.
Later in the game, Garneau threw out a pair of runners — Olivares (sixth inning) and Benintendi (seventh) — attempting to steal second base.
Baddoo robs HR
Doing his part to protect Skubal’s scoreless start, Baddoo made an incredible catch in left field on the second pitch of the third inning.
Dozier clobbered a 95 mph two-seam fastball, sending the ball 369 feet to left field. His swing produced a 98.2 mph exit velocity and .370 expected batting average. If not for Baddoo, the ball would have cleared the wall for a solo home run.
“First and foremost, I want to say Dozier robbed me (of a triple to the right-center gap) last night, and I told him, ‘I owe you one,'” Baddoo said. “That was perfect that Dozier hit that. I got a good break on it and was hoping I could jump as high as I could to come up with it. And I did.”
The 23-year-old timed his jump perfectly, leaped and extended nearly half of his body over the wall. He robbed Dozier of a home run to keep the contest scoreless. After the play, Baddoo couldn’t help but smile about the first-ever home run he robbed as an outfielder in the big leagues.
“I’ve never done that before,” Baddoo said. “I felt like Jordan out there. I got pretty high, I think. That’s what people said.”
In the batter’s box, Baddoo finished 1-for-3 with one walk.
“What a catch, what a play,” Skubal said. “It’s not all about what he does with his bat. He’s very good defensively out there, and he showed it tonight. … He’s a complete baseball player that does everything really well. That’s why he’s a Rookie of the Year candidate, in my opinion. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
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.