Skubal takes stock amid skid: ‘I feel like I’m close’

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — The pause that came as Tarik Skubal contemplated a question about his struggles after the Tigers’ 7-4 loss to the Royals on Sunday reflected the struggle Skubal has encountered to get out of his funk.

“I don’t really know if I have one for-sure answer on that,” he said.

Asked if he’s fighting his command, his velocity, maybe even his mechanics, the Tigers left-hander took another direction.

“I feel like I’m just kind of fighting myself a little bit, too,” Skubal said, “and I think that kind of leads to all those — the command [issues] and mechanics. Sometimes you just kind of fight yourself, and I’m just kind of doing that right now. So I’ve just gotta be better at not doing that.”

“I think the better he stays through his pitches, the more consistent they are,” Barnhart said. “I think the reality of the situation is that it’s virtually impossible to keep your timing the exact same all season, no matter what position you play — if you’re a hitter, if you’re a pitcher. I think it’s just a simple mechanical tweak that I think will help him out.”

Skubal’s Statcast numbers from Sunday suggest a velocity drop was also at play. His four-seam fastball, sinker and slider were all down 1.3 mph from his season averages. While his sinker normally averages 94.8 mph, he topped 95 mph with just four of 22 sinkers.

The timing — with Skubal’s delivery and his struggles — couldn’t be much worse for the Tigers. Besides losing two of three to the team behind them in the AL Central, the Tigers used their bullpen to cover 5 1/3 innings ahead of Monday’s doubleheader against the Guardians. Detroit will start two rookies Monday, including Garrett Hill in his Major League debut. The team has not yet listed a starter for Tuesday, though Drew Hutchison is the likely candidate after re-signing with Triple-A Toledo last week.

In the long term, the Tigers are three games into a stretch of 19 games in 17 days, including doubleheaders each of the next two Mondays. Their rotation includes two rookies alongside Skubal and Michael Pineda, the latter having just returned from a fractured middle finger.

Hill, who began the season at Double-A Erie, will make three starts before the Tigers reassess over the All-Star break. Rony García, who went on the 10-day injured list Saturday with right shoulder soreness, could be back by then, or Elvin Rodriguez could be ready for another audition. But Matt Manning won’t likely be ready, and there’s no indication when Eduardo Rodriguez might return.

The cumulative absences put more pressure on Skubal to put up innings, if not zeroes.

“Pressure is a privilege regardless,” Skubal said. “Especially the game that we get to play, having any sort of pressure on you is a privilege. There’s unnecessary pressure that you put on yourself, and I don’t have any of that. I haven’t really even thought about it, honestly. I care about winning games, and I’m not doing that.”

Skubal had a 5-2 record with a 2.33 ERA and a strong case for All-Star consideration after beating the Pirates on June 7. He has lost all five starts since then, allowing 23 runs on 30 hits over 23 innings. After allowing two home runs over his first 10 starts combined, he allowed two homers in the second inning Sunday, including an Emmanuel Rivera two-run drive off a 1-2 fastball.

Opponents continue to hit Skubal’s fastball hard when they connect, averaging 93.7 mph in exit velocity. But they’re also connecting with Skubal’s slider, which Edward Olivares hit out three batters before Rivera’s drive. Opponents hit just 5-for-39 with 13 strikeouts off Skubal’s slider in May, according to Statcast, but they’ve hit three homers off it since the start of June. It has not been the putaway pitch that it was for the season’s first two months.

Skubal struck out only one batter Sunday. He exited amid a 31-pitch fifth inning that included a pair of nine-pitch battles and an eight-pitch walk to Whit Merrifield before a ground ball through the left side by Andrew Benintendi plated two runs in a lefty-lefty situation.

“I feel like I’m close to figuring some things out,” Skubal said. “Some things just take time, and that’s what I’m going through. It’s frustrating, because I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, or doing what I’m capable of. But it’s part of the game. You continue to learn and try to get one percent better. I know the results might not show that I’m getting better, but I promise I’m working hard and getting better. Eventually it’ll start to turn my way.”

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