Niyo: ‘Ugly’ loss to White Sox should remind Tigers of the long road ahead

Detroit News

Detroit — Tarik Skubal’s day started with an ambush and ended with a wild pitch.

And that’s probably a fair representation of the Tigers’ season-opening series against the Chicago White Sox, which began with a roar but concluded with a reminder to settle down and buckle up, because this will be a long trip and a bumpy ride.

It always is when you’re trying to get from here to there in professional sports. Or from the bottom to the top, in the case of these Tigers, who’ve spent most of the last five seasons at or near the cellar in the American League Central.

And for all the hope and optimism that accompanied the start of this baseball season in Detroit, it should go without saying that keeping things in perspective will be easier said than done here. Yet we might as well say it again right now: Pace yourself, Tigers fans.

Look, after a stirring comeback win against the reigning division champs on Opening Day, the Tigers’ weekend was unquestionably a letdown. They dropped a pair of games against their would-be rivals from Chicago, with their top two young starting pitchers getting knocked around early and Detroit’s revamped lineup getting shut down a bit too easily.

Sunday’s 10-1 loss to the White Sox felt even more deflating, coming as it did on a crisp, sunny afternoon that finally began to feel like spring in downtown Detroit.

For the first time in a while, the kids ran the bases after the game. But the Tigers notably did not while the game was being played, mustering just two hits and four baserunners all afternoon. Throw in a couple unforced throwing errors in this one — a brutal one by Javy Báez led to an add-on run in the fourth inning — and, “it got a little ugly,” manager AJ Hinch admitted afterward.

“But losing 2-1 would’ve been ugly, too,” he added.

Too soon to know

And in that same vein, don’t expect Hinch to draw any conclusions from any of this. Asked for his takeaways from the three-game series against Chicago, the Tigers manager offered only a wry smile and a short answer.

“Nothing,” he said. “I mean, we lost the series.”

From a manager whose “win the day” mantra hasn’t wavered since he arrived in Detroit nearly 18 months ago, this is hardly a surprising response. But it’s a telling one just the same.

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Hinch tipped his cap once more to the fans who packed Comerica Park for a wet and windy opener Friday, as well as the crowd of 15,712 announced for Sunday’s game. Then he immediately pivoted to preparation for a three-game series against Boston that starts Monday night, while reminding everyone, “this is one series of a long journey.”

Translation: It’s way too soon to start drawing any conclusions about the 2022 Tigers and their chances of living up to expectations, whether we’re talking theirs or ours.

But just the same, it’s not hard to pinpoint an early culprit. The starting pitching wasn’t nearly good enough in this opening series, as the White Sox jumped out to first-inning leads in all three games.

And while Casey Mize managed to regroup and settle down Saturday, Skubal’s struggles with command of his fastball never really went away in the series finale.

Skubal, who was coming off an impressive spring in Lakeland — one that even had Hinch talking about how “he’s on the cusp of really taking a step forward as a dominant pitcher” — barely managed to get through four innings Sunday. Skubal allowed seven hits and five runs (four earned) while striking out three and walking one. He didn’t miss a lot of bats (nine swing-and-miss strikes) and was greeted by too much hard contact from a White Sox lineup that ranks as one of MLB’s best.

Out of rhythm

It didn’t help that Tim Anderson, who has teed off on Detroit pitching for years, was back atop the White Sox lineup Sunday after serving a two-game suspension to start the season. He smacked Skubal’s first-pitch offering to the wall in left field for a double to lead off the game, and four batters later Skubal headed to the dugout staring at a 2-0 deficit.

“I just didn’t really ever find a good rhythm,” Skubal said. “I wasn’t putting the fastball where I wanted to. Change-up command wasn’t very good, either. Just didn’t really have a feel for much today.”

Skubal did manage to strike out the side in the second, though Adam Engel drilled a 1-0 fastball for another extra-base hit. But the top of the order was all over the young lefty’s stuff in the third, and with the Tigers’ bats growing impatient against Michael Kopech and his power package, there wasn’t much suspense to be found Sunday.

“We were behind from the get-go and I think our at-bats, quite frankly, just got a little bit rushed as the game went along,” Hinch said.

The good news, at least, is they won’t have much time to think about that. The Tigers’ schedule made sure of that this spring, with 10 straight games before their first off-day and 21 games in 24 days in April, weather permitting.

That includes series with the Red Sox and Yankees and Dodgers, as well as pair of divisional road trips to Kansas City and Minnesota. I wouldn’t expect a repeat of last year’s 9-24 start, but .500 would feel like a win, if you’re being honest as a fan.

And while it sounds like a cliché when third baseman Jeimer Candelario says, “You’ve just gotta turn the page,”  it’s also the truth. That’s the point Hinch worked so hard to drive home last year as he turned a losing team into a group that at least learned how to win in spite of an obvious talent gap.

And that’s the point he’ll continue to hammer home now that the gap has been narrowed and the bar has been raised, in many respects. The only takeaway from this series should be that there’s another one coming — and soon.

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john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @JohnNiyo

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