Scratched from start, Skubal K’s 9 anyway

Detroit Tigers

PITTSBURGH — For a moment, Tarik Skubal had been scratched from his scheduled start Tuesday at PNC Park. The Pirates probably wish it had stayed that way.

The reasoning made sense. Though the skies weren’t threatening as game time neared, radar showed a line of thunderstorms clearly headed toward PNC Park; the only question was when they would arrive. The Tigers, thinking the storms would hit around 7:40 p.m. ET, had no interest in starting Skubal at 7:05 and then having to replace him after a couple of innings. So they announced that Wily Peralta would start the game and that Skubal would instead pitch on Wednesday.

“I feel for him, because that wasn’t a great way to start the day,” manager A.J. Hinch said after the Tigers’ 5-3 win, “but we weren’t going to lose him [to pitch] two innings for nothing.”

Still, less than half an hour before the scheduled first pitch at 7:05, Skubal was in the bullpen without his jersey on.

“We were about 45 minutes before the game started when we heard that we were going to make the switch [away from Skubal],” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “He was not starting the game, and so he was going out there to get his throwing in so he could be prepared to pitch tomorrow. He was going to throw off the mound a little bit, but thankfully they let us know [that the game was delayed] before he got on the mound.”

Skubal marched into the dugout and up the steps to the clubhouse, adjusting to the back-and-forth. He’d gone from worrying about the Pirates’ lineup Tuesday to adjusting to Wednesday. Now, with the game delayed until after the rain had passed and the Tigers no longer worried about his outing being interrupted, he was back to pitching Tuesday, but with no idea when or how late the game would start.

“It’s just a delay, so you try to stay out of the kitchen and eat too much,” Skubal said. “You try to figure out how to stay hydrated, and then make sure you’re not really hungry when you’re pitching, just because you don’t want to think about that.”

About 4 1/2 hours later, Skubal marched back into the dugout with seven quality innings and nine strikeouts, and received a handshake from Hinch for a job well done.

“It was just a weird night,” Hinch said. “We started the game at 9:15. It was a long day for him. He played catch. It was awkward, just no routine, no normalcy. But he got through seven innings. He didn’t have his best stuff, but he competed his tail off and did a nice job.”

After a curveball of a pregame move, the curveball arguably helped save Skubal on a night when his slider — a pitch that has been devastating for him in recent starts — wasn’t as sharp.

“It’s not like my slider was bad,” Skubal said. “I just had trouble getting it to my glove side, especially to left-handed hitters. It’s something that I need to get better at.”

It was the one real blemish on Skubal’s outing. He hung a slider to rookie Pirates outfielder Cal Mitchell, who sent it 405 feet to right field for a two-run home run to slug Pittsburgh back into the game in the fourth inning. It ended a 36-inning homerless streak for Skubal dating back to May 5, and marked just the second home run Skubal has allowed to a left-handed hitter in his career. Former Mariners slugger Kyle Seager, now retired, has the other.

Skubal was seemingly in control up to that point, having struck out six of Pittsburgh’s first 14 hitters. His changeup was fooling a young, aggressive lineup, and a Tigers outburst against Pirates starter José Quintana had given Skubal some breathing room. After hitting Jack Suwinski with a pitch to begin the fourth inning, he’d fanned Michael Chavis and Diego Castillo back-to-back for the second time. But Mitchell’s drive made it a game again.

It could’ve shaken Skubal. Instead, he dug into his toolbox of pitches to find a solution.

“My changeup was good. My curveball was really good,” Skubal said. “I made the adjustment and went to the curveball instead of the slider.”

Though Skubal threw just eight curveballs in his 92-pitch performance, the Pirates swung at six of them and whiffed on four. Nine more swings and misses — and five strikeouts — came off the changeup, which he threw just 13 times. When back-to-back two-out singles in the fifth inning brought up Suwinski with a chance to move Pittsburgh in front, Skubal put him in an 0-2 hole with back-to-back curveballs, setting him up for a 95 mph fastball for a called third strike.

“It just says so much about him and the type of pitcher, the type of stuff that he has,” Barnhart said. “He didn’t have his A-stuff by any means, in my opinion, and he got through the seventh inning. I looked at A.J. when he got off the mound and I said, ‘I have no idea how he got to the seventh inning.’ To only give up one hard-hit ball and not have his A-stuff is pretty special.”

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