What has Tarik Skubal getting goosebumps as he inches back toward Detroit Tigers rotation

Detroit Free Press

TOLEDO, Ohio — It was enough to frighten any Detroit Tigers fan.

Tarik Skubal was on the mound on Wednesday afternoon, pitching for the Toledo Mud Hens, in the middle of his fourth rehab start, when something strange happened — a hold your breath moment.

After throwing a pitch in the second inning, Skubal shook his hand funny, like he was suddenly in pain, or something didn’t feel right.

Toledo catcher Michael Papierski noticed it, called timeout and jogged to the mound.

So did Toledo trainer Jason Schwartzman, who rushed out of the dugout.

“I hit my thumb on my knee when I was going back to throw,” Skubal said while smiling after the game. “It kind of popped a little bit, so nothing concerning at all. I think I just literally cracked my knuckle.”

OK, you can take a breath now.

Everybody stood by the mound watching intently, making sure he was OK, as Skubal threw a warm-up pitch. He hit mid 90s with ease, flashed a thumbs up and kept pitching.

“It was nothing,” Toledo manager Anthony Iapoce said. “You know, he’s got some strong big legs.”

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Skubal was on a tight leash, like a pitcher in spring training. He threw 52 pitches, 32 for strikes, over 2⅔ innings. He struck out four, while walking one and gave up a homer. His fastball maxed out at 97.6 mph.

The big takeaway?

It was another positive step. His velocity was strong, and he had his command for the most part. Now, it’s just a matter of building up innings before he can return to Detroit.

“My velocity is really, really good,” he said. “I really do like where I’m at.”

That’s great news for the Tigers, a team that is suddenly in the thick of the AL Central race, despite a rash of injuries.

Now, even better news: Reinforcements are on the way.

According to the Tigers latest injury report:

Riley Greene (left fibula stress reaction) is in a return-to-play running progression. He is playing catch and hitting flips in the cage;

Matt Manning (right foot fracture) will make his next rehab start on Thursday for Toledo;

Alex Faedo (right middle finger discomfort) is throwing bullpens;

Beau Brieske (right ulnar nerve entrapment) is on a rehab assignment in Toledo;

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Eduardo Rodriguez (left index finger pulley rupture) completed a bullpen session Friday;

And I expect Skubal to be back in Detroit in July. Maybe, early July.

Bring back just some of those guys — I mean, just put Skubal and Manning in the rotation — and it should give this team a super boost.

“I really like our team,” Skubal said.

As he spoke, the Tigers were on their way to beating the Kansas City Royals, 9-4. Skubal knew the score — he was following the Tigers game from the Mud Hens clubhouse. And yes, he can feel the excitement that is building for a team with a bad record, in a bad division. But who cares? Just being relevant is fun.

“I like our chances, and that’s not a diss on the division,” Skubal said. “It’s just, I like our team. I like the way we’re all helping. We can play. I like our odds against anybody, not just our division. What we need to do is win our division to make the playoffs, so that’s gonna be the fun part. You know, that’s — just got goosebumps thinking about it. It’s real and it’s gonna be fun, so I’m excited.”

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Skubal is coming back from flexor tendon surgery on his left elbow.

“I want to be playing right now,” said Skubal, whose last start for the Tigers was Aug. 1, 2022. “That’s the most frustrating part.  I feel like I can go help a team win. But I just can’t do it right now.”

First, he needs to build up his durability.

Which is why he’s in Toledo.

The Mud Hens are benefiting from having him in the roation, of course. But it’s more than that.

“Not just his performance on the mound, these guys get to see the behind-the-scenes of how a guy works,” Iapoce said.

They see his work ethic and approach, as well as his friendly demeanor.

“The best part about it is, you don’t even know that he’s a big leaguer,” said Justyn-Henry Malloy, who has snapped out of a funk and hit his 11th homer on Wednesday. “That’s almost like an even bigger compliment. Obviously, his stuff is big league stuff. But when he’s in here, it’s like he’s one of the guys and I think that’s kind of the coolest part.”

The next step for Skubal

Skubal is doing more than getting his arm into shape.

He’s learning how to deal with several new rules.

“I like the pitch clock,” he said. “I’m a guy that works fast.”

But he’s also getting used to throwing to an automated strike zone — used in some Triple-A games.

“It’s too low and not high enough,” Skubal said, which is a particular challenge for somebody who works at the top of the zone. “I think the strike zones a little bit down and they say it varies park to park.”

So consider that, when looking at his strike ratio.

As far as his velocity? He thinks it was faster than what was showed on the scoreboard.

“I’m not sure how accurate that board is,” Skubal said. “But I’ll be interested to see my game report tomorrow and kind of compare.

There are a few more things he wants to improve, like throwing his curveball for strikes earlier in the count and improving his slider.

But those are nitpick things.

The types of things pitchers work on in spring training.

And, in essence, that’s where he is still.

“I really do like where I’m at,” he said. “My misses are damn close.”

Actually, it feels as if he’s damn close. To returning to Detroit.

And that is beyond exciting for Tigers fans, watching this team hover within striking distance.

MORE FROM SEIDEL: How a metal dog tag is guiding Tigers No. 1 prospect Jace Jung through pro debut

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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