Boston — You might’ve had to do a double take, but that side-arming right-hander throwing 96- and 97-mph bullets at the Tigers in the eighth inning Monday night was indeed Downriver’s John Schreiber.
He’s bigger these days and bearded and more confident than he was at any time during his two seasons with the Tigers in 2019 and 2020. But he’s still the same humble and hard-working guy the Tigers took a flier on in the 15th round in 2016.
“I am extremely grateful for what Detroit has given me over the years,” Schreiber said before the game Tuesday. “I love everybody there, the staff — they helped me so much. Juan Nieves, Jorge Cordova, Willie Blair (his pitching coaches in the Tigers’ system).”
The Tigers, though, kicked him to the curb in February 2021, designating him for assignment to clear a roster spot for free-agent signee Nomar Mazara, who ended up hitting just .212 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 50 games.
The Red Sox snapped up Schreiber off waivers. One team’s trash is another team’s treasure.
Schreiber, as he showed Monday, has been dominant for Boston. In 21 games he’s posted a 0.86 ERA and a 0.714 WHIP. Opponents are slashing .135/.200/.216 against him.
Manager Alex Cora summoned him in the eighth inning Monday to face Javier Báez with a runner at first after the Tigers had cut the Red Sox lead to 5-2. A side-armer with a sweeping slider is typically poison for Báez and Schreiber got two quick swings and misses on chase sliders.
But Báez didn’t bite on the next two sliders and Schreiber fired a 97-mph four-seam fastball that Báez got a piece of and fouled off. (We will get back to that velocity explosion in a minute.) Schreiber found way too much plate with his next slider and Báez was able to rip a double into the corner.
Next up was rookie Riley Greene, a left-handed hitter. In a four-pitch at-bat, Schreiber punched him out with three heaters — 95, 96 and 95.
This from a guy whose average fastball in 2020 with the Tigers was 89-90 mph. But in typical Schreiber fashion, he didn’t spend any time at Driveline or any of the other pitching academies out there. He didn’t hire a new pitching coach or strength coach. He didn’t change his mechanics.
He pumped up his velocity the old-fashioned way. He just worked harder.
“I did my normal workout and throwing program, but I just started it way earlier than I was used to,” he said.
Schreiber was upset with himself in 2021. He showed up for his first spring training with the Red Sox and he wasn’t ready.
“I wasn’t throwing very hard,” he said. “By midseason everything started to pick up again and I was up to 93-94. Going into this season, I wanted to make sure I was ready to go and I think that really helped me out a lot.”
It’s helped everything. Not only was his fastball velocity at or under 90 mph back in 2020, his slider was sitting at 77 mph. This year, while his fastball sits at 94 and touches 97, his slider is up to 82 mph. Hitters are 1-for-27 with 11 strikeouts against his heater and 4-for-21 with 11 strikeouts against his slider.
“I’m sure adrenaline has something to do with it,” he said. “And the confidence is way up.”
He flashed that confidence for a bit in 2020 with the Tigers. In seven outings from July 27 to Aug. 15, he pitched 8⅓ scoreless innings, allowing just three hits with six strikeouts and no walks. Things when south fast. In his next eight outings, from Aug. 16 to Sept. 9, he was tagged for 11 runs and 16 hits in 7⅓ innings.
“I was pretty disappointed in myself,” he said. “Just because I knew I wasn’t pitching the way I was capable of pitching there. When I got picked up by Boston I was excited for a new opportunity. New set of eyes and all of that.”
At that point, Schreiber, who still makes his home in Rockford, said he stopped looking back. Sure it was a great story, unrecruited out of Gibraltar Carlson High School, pitching at Henry Ford Community College then at NAIA University of Northwestern Ohio and ultimately the dream come true — pitching for the team he grew up rooting for.
“But no more looking back,” he said. “Just look forward to the new opportunity and try to better myself as a pitcher, person and teammate.”
Making the fix
Tarik Skubal, who will start for the Tigers in the series finale Wednesday, thinks he’s made the fix.
His last two starts have been rough. He’s given up nine runs in nine innings, including five in five innings against the Rangers in his last outing. At issue in both was his inability to command his pitches to his glove side — inside on right-handed hitters.
He and pitching coach Chris Fetter addressed the issue in his between-starts bullpen session.
“Just with my tempo and delivery, I think I got too slow,” Skubal said. “That made my arm lag behind my body. So I just worked on speeding up my rhythm and my cadence and everything kind of cleaned itself right back up.
“My arm was on time again and I was able to go away and in and up and down a lot better.”
He’s not talking about pace of play here. He’s talking about his time to the plate from the very beginning of his delivery to his slide step to the release of the baseball. He doesn’t know how he did it, but he’d slowed everything down.
“I was executing pitches better from the stretch than I was from the windup,” he said. “That’s because of how slow I’d gotten in the windup. I plan on establishing my rhythm early before my start, in catch play, and then get on the mound and forget about it — just worry about competing and executing pitches.”
Bad good habit
Typically, catching a fly ball with two hands is a good thing. It’s the way it’s been taught for more than a century. It’s the way Riley Greene has always caught fly balls, with two hands.
But in the fourth inning Monday, Greene got a lesson in when catching the ball with two hands is the wrong play. He came racing in on a shallow fly ball hit by Trevor Story. He got there in plenty of time but he ended up boxing it with his two-handed attempt.
His first big-league error.
“He’s one of the rare two-handed catchers these days,” manager AJ Hinch said. “That’s the old, traditional fundamental way. But when the ball is outside your body on the run, it’s really hard to catch the ball that way.”
Greene admitted Tuesday that if he could do it over, he’d use just his glove hand.
“It’s a habit,” he said. “Just trying to secure it. But once I got to the ball, my eyes started bouncing. I was running on my heels a little bit. It happens.”
Tigers at Red Sox
First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Wednesday, Fenway Park, Boston
TV/radio: BSD, MLBN/97.1
LHP Tarik Skubal (5-4, 3.13), Tigers: After a run of seven starts where he gave up a total of eight runs over 45 innings, he’s been tagged for nine in his last two, covering just nine innings. In both, he had trouble locating pitches to his glove side (inside to right-handed hitters). Still, his strikeout-per-nine rate (9.5) is eighth best in the American League and is strikeout-to-walk rate (5.6) is fifth best.
RHP Michael Wacha (5-1, 2.28), Red Sox: He’s having a major bounce-back season, limiting hitters to a .204 batting average and .588 OPS. Left-handed hitters are only hitting .167 against him, largely because of his elite change-up (.157 with a 30% whiff rate). He’s given up just four earned runs in his last four starts covering 24⅓ innings.