Without best stuff, Skubal delivers again

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — On a day when manager A.J. Hinch announced that Matt Manning has been shut down with biceps tendinitis and Casey Mize has yet to resume throwing, the Tigers desperately needed some good news out of their rotation Thursday night. Then Tarik Skubal continued his maturation into a potential ace.

His pitching line won’t reflect it, nor will the no-decision he took in the Tigers’ 4-3 walkoff win over the Guardians. But on a night when Skubal didn’t have his best stuff and gave up a rare early Tigers lead with his first runs allowed in three weeks, he delivered seven quality innings, rested a taxed Tigers bullpen and gave his team a chance to pull out a second consecutive win.

This is what front-line starters do when they’re not necessarily their best. The way Skubal continues to deliver, he isn’t just fronting Detroit’s rotation by default as the last healthy starter from the Opening Day rotation. He really is that good. He entered Thursday second only to Toronto’s Kevin Gausman among qualified Major League starters in Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs, as well as Fielding Independent Pitching.

“Tarik’s maturing into a really, really confident pitcher in his own right,” Hinch said, “and when he has confidence, I have confidence.”

Even Skubal’s health was briefly in question after he left his previous start in Cleveland after five innings following a 100.4 mph line drive off his left shin. Had it struck him in a different stage of his follow-through, he could have joined Manning, Mize, Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Pineda, Tyler Alexander and Spencer Turnbull on the injured list. Instead, he played catch the next day, threw his between-starts bullpen session after that and barely had a bruise a couple of days later.

Skubal showed no ill effects. When he retired the Guardians in order in the first inning and overcame a two-out single from Oscar Gonzalez in the second, he stretched his scoreless streak to 21 innings, the longest by a Major League starter this season and the longest by a Tigers starter since Michael Fulmer’s 34-inning streak in 2016.

Skubal took the mound for the third inning with a 3-0 lead thanks to some early offense, but hits from Cleveland’s eighth and ninth hitters, Oscar Mercado and Luke Maile, ended the streak. A one-out walk to Amed Rosario put a second runner on. Skubal followed a slider with a curveball to put MVP candidate Jose Ramirez in an 0-2 count ahead of a groundout. He used the same pitch combination to put Owen Miller in a hole, but left a curveball up just enough for a two-run single through the left side.

Skubal was still second-guessing himself afterwards.

“I need to do a better job of limiting that inning to one run,” he said. “That curveball, 0-2, needs to be in a better location. … If that pitch is a little bit more down, he either swings and misses or grounds it to Javy [Báez].”

His outing, Hinch said, could’ve gone in a different direction from there.

“Just a messy inning that ends up in a tie game and then we didn’t do much offensively after that when [the Guardians] went to their ‘pen,” Hinch said. “And then Skubal took over the game, like, ‘They’re not scoring again.’ And it was very impressive with how he went about it. Even at the end, he’s fighting to stay in after 100 pitches.

“He knew he had a lot of responsibility tonight. We only had a few relievers that we were going to use. We were pretty thin, and Tarik needed to have a good night for us to win.”

Skubal retired 13 of his final 14 batters after Miller’s single. Instead of muscling up with fastballs, he threw the kitchen sink. His 102 pitches included more sliders (37) than four-seam fastballs (21). His 19 changeups induced six swings and misses from a Guardians lineup heavy on right-handed hitters and stingy on strikeouts.

Part of that mix comes from Skubal’s work on his secondary pitches, including a tweak in how he holds his changeup.

“It’s really the same grip. I just kind of changed one finger,” Skubal said.

Another part comes from his work with pitching coach Chris Fetter, not just on pitch design but pitch mix.

“Tarik has learned that pitching is more than simply your strengths,” Hinch said. “Generally you can go with your strengths and that’s a good outcome. … When you get to this level, you better apply that hitter weakness in there somewhere.”

The result is a well-rounded pitcher who can pick and choose his spots for five different pitches and trust them all.

Where the Tigers’ season ends up remains to be seen. But if Skubal’s emergence becomes the bright spot out of a rough year, and a building block for better times ahead, it’s at the very least a silver lining.

“I”m trying to control what I can control, and that’s me throwing a baseball,” Skubal said after his last outing. “I have no say in anything else other than me controlling each pitch that I get to throw. There hasn’t been any added pressure or anything like that.”

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