Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch wasn’t quite ready to call left-hander Tarik Skubal the team’s ace before Sunday afternoon’s series finale against the Baltimore Orioles.
After the third-year starter’s dominance at Comerica Park, though — 11 strikeouts in a 5-1 win over the Orioles on Sunday — Hinch might have to reconsider that.
Skubal was backed by a trio of early runs, but he needed just the first one — a Miguel Cabrera homer in the second — as he held Baltimore scoreless over six innings, with three hits allowed on 100 pitches (69 strikes). Skubal is the second Tiger this season to reach 100 pitches in a start, after Eduardo Rodriguez threw 102 over six innings on April 26 and 104 over 6⅔ innings Friday night.
“Yeah, he got to 100, too, make sure you put that in your notes,” Hinch pointed out. “He wasn’t the first, but he was the second.”
The outing, his third career start with double-digit strikeouts and first since Aug. 25, 2021, tied his career high in strikeouts and lowered his ERA to 2.50.
Still, Skubal wasn’t entirely happy with the performance, especially a sixth inning that included two walks after striking out leadoff hitter Cedric Mullins, presenting a challenge for Hinch.
“He was tiring, you could tell,” Hinch said. “His misses were getting a little bit more extreme in the last couple at-bats and, you know, I don’t wanna go get him — for a lot of reasons — but mostly because he’d earned the right to finish his outing.
After a visit from pitching coach Chris Fetter, Skubal ended the frame, and his outing, with a strikeout and popout.
“(Hinch) let me stay in that game, but (I) also didn’t get out of that inning with a zero,” Skubal said. “I also didn’t do a good job getting the leadoff guy here. I got some stuff I gotta work on, for sure, but good outing overall.”
The Tigers manager was more lenient in his judgment of the performance, despite Skubal allowing three singles — the only hits he allowed — to open three different innings.
“His stuff is so good today,” Hinch said. “He pounded the strike zone. He had multiple pitches going, all he was talking about in the dugout was not getting the first batter out in the third, fourth and fifth. … When he has that banter, he’s in a good place and he’s in complete control of his outing.”
Skubal entered Sunday’s start with just two earned runs allowed in two May starts, with 14 strikeouts in 13 innings against the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics.
He was efficient early, setting down the O’s in order in the first inning on 14 pitches, with two three-pitch swinging strikeouts sandwiching a grounder to third baseman Harold Castro, starting in place of Jeimer Candelario. Skubal then struck out the side in the second on 15 pitches, with two strikeouts catching Baltimore batters looking on 96-mph sinkers.
It was a performance Skubal could almost predict, facing an Orioles lineup with eight right-handed hitters following Mullins, a lefty.
“I knew I could go out there on fastballs,” he said. “I could go out there and there’s holes there and I could throw sliders into guys … as long as I throw over the plate.”
Skubal’s run continued with a strikeout to end the third, retiring Mullins for the second time, on a foul tip off an 89.8 mph slider. In the fourth, Skubal added two more strikeouts, getting Anthony Santander swinging on a 83.7 mph changeup and ending the frame by freezing pinch-hitter Chris Owings on a 94.8 mph sinker. The fifth inning brought more contact — a third Oriole single and two fly balls — and strikeout No. 9 for Skubal, getting Rylan Bannon on a 95.1 mph four-seamer up in the strike zone.
Strikeout No. 10 came against Mullins, for the third time, the outfielder went down swinging at a 92.9 mph four-seam fastball to open the sixth inning. (Mullins ended the game with four strikeouts, adding one in the eighth.)
Catcher Tucker Barnhart, who has started behind the plate in all seven of Skubal’s appearances this season, said getting ahead with the fastball was key.
“He’s just been on the attack from the first pitch of the at-bat, pretty much for the majority of the season,” Barnhart said. “The ability to control his fastball in locations that are very, very effective for him, as well as mixing the slider, changeup and a curveball every once in a while to protect those other pitches that are so effective for him.”
Skubal’s 11 strikeouts matched his career high, set June 5 against the Chicago White Sox in five innings. He finished Sunday with 21 swings-and-misses, topping his previous career high of 19, set against the Astros last June.
But Skubal wasn’t focused on his personal marks after the game.
“I feel like I did a good job of getting to two strikes and then being able to execute a pitch with two strikes,” Skubal said. “You know, strikeouts come, but I’m not really going to be focused on them. It’s good to get to two strikes and then get guys on those counts, too.”
Leading off the second, Cabrera sent the second pitch of the inning from Orioles righty Taylor Wells, a 92.7-mph four-seam fastball, 412 feet into the Tigers’ bullpen for career home run No. 505, breaking a tie with Eddie Murray for 27th place all-time. Cabrera’s contact in his second plate appearance, in the third, didn’t travel as far, but it extended the Tigers’ lead; the designated hitter hit a fly ball to right center, just deep enough to score Javier Baez (who had doubled two batters earlier and advanced to third on a single by Willi Castro) with one out.
The Tigers (12-23) scattered eight hits over the first five innings in front of 20,080 fans at Comerica Park, with every starter but Austin Meadows, who had one-at-bat, and Spencer Torkelson collecting a hit.
“I think it’s just continuing to grind out at-bats,” Barnhart said. “More and more, you can just kinda pass the baton to the next guy, no matter how you do it.”
Wells lasted four-plus innings, departing with no outs in the fifth after giving up two hits. He had two strikeouts and no walks. Right-hander Joey Krehbiel came on in relief and induced a 6-4-3 double play, followed by a Willi Castro groundout, to end the Tigers’ threat.
Harold Castro picked up his second hit on the day with a triple to right field to open the seventh inning; he scored on Tucker Barnhart’s second single of the afternoon.
Cabrera singled in the bottom of the eighth; it was career hit No. 3,020, tying former Orioles star Rafael Palmeiro for 29th on the MLB hits list. Harold Castro’s third hit drove in Cabrera to make it 5-0.
Right-hander Jacob Barnes relieved Skubal to open the seventh inning, two days after allowing two homers and a walk Friday night. Sunday’s outing was much more effective, as he set down the O’s in order on 13 pitches (10 strikes), including swinging strikeouts for the second and third outs.
The Tigers, who entered Sunday with the second-lowest bullpen ERA (2.72) in the American League, then got a scoreless eighth from Rony Garcia.
Garcia yielded a leadoff home run to Trey Mancini in the ninth before recording the final three outs.
Hello and goodbye
The Tigers got two outfielders back to start Sunday, but not for long.
Meadows, playing his debut in the series after missing the first two games with vertigo symptoms, lasted one inning in right field and one at-bat. After popping out to the catcher to end the first inning, Meadows was replaced by Willi Castro in the field, with Castro playing left and Robbie Grossman shifting from left to right.
The other addition to the Tigers’ lineup, Victor Reyes, continued his hot hitting from his Triple-A rehab stint (8-for-14 over the past three games) with a double into the right-field corner in the bottom of the second. The center fielder’s return was short-lived, as well, though, as he was replaced on the bases by Derek Hill, who then stole third and came around to score on a Harold Castro single to right.