How Detroit Tigers’ Tarik Skubal overcame latest challenge in ‘laser-focused’ sixth start

Detroit Free Press

A pair of uncharacteristic fielding errors from center fielder Riley Greene on back-to-back balls in play put the Detroit Tigers behind on the scoreboard and left a runner on second base for left-hander Tarik Skubal with one out in the second inning.

Skubal sensed danger in his sixth start of the season.

“You have to limit those innings,” Skubal said after Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, “and you could see it kind of start to go in the second (inning), so to get out of there with only one (run) was huge, for my confidence and our team.”

The blow-up inning has doomed Skubal, who has a 3.67 ERA with four walks and 33 strikeouts across 27 innings, in his return from left flexor tendon surgery, despite career bests in walk rate (3.8%) and strikeout rate (31.1%). Of his 11 earned runs, nine of them occurred in two innings combined against the Kansas City Royals on July 18 and Miami Marlins on July 30.

The Royals scored five runs in the fourth inning, and the Marlins scored four runs in the fifth inning. The 26-year-old, one of the best up-and-coming pitchers in baseball, would have a 0.67 ERA in his six starts, rather than a 3.67 ERA, if those two blow-up innings were scoreless innings.

“It’s just like, ‘What was I not doing?’ I’m going to keep that to myself because I don’t want teams to know that,” Skubal said. “But when it’s not going my way, what’s the difference? What did I go away from? What was I trying to create?

“If I wanted the double play, how did I pitch it? Did I pitch it like myself, or did I change my process? You lose a little bit of aggressiveness and you start leaking pitches over the middle when you try to create a result rather than execute a pitch that’ll get the result.”

A mental shift between starts helped Skubal avoid another blow-up inning against the Rays.

The Rays had a runner on second base with one out in the second inning. The bottom part of their lineup was trying to keep the inning going and pass the baton to the top of their lineup. But Skubal denied them the opportunity to advance the runner to third base, striking out Jose Siri with a 97.5 mph four-seam fastball for the second out.

He then used a slider to induce a René Pinto infield pop-out for the third out, ending the inning. The one run that scored, as a product of Greene’s second error, was an unearned run.

“He was incredible,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said Saturday. “He was laser focused. He was locked in. Some of the best stuff he’s featured pre- and post-injury, and he was in attack mode. You could see the adrenaline. The way he’s pitching, with his energy, his focus and his grit, every good word you can say about a guy, he has it.”

Skubal analyzed the poor innings against the Royals and Marlins with pitching coach Chris Fetter in search of understanding why hitters suddenly became comfortable when he pitched under duress with runners on base.

He also wanted to know why he kept leaving pitches over the middle of the strike zone in those situations.

“I went away from my strengths,” Skubal said. “I started trying to pitch to get a result instead of executing pitches the way I know how to. It’s little things like that you forget about. That’s what the whole rehab process is about. When you take so much time off, you forget those little nuances.”

In Saturday’s win, Skubal allowed one unearned run on six hits and one walk with six strikeouts across a season-high 5⅓ innings and 88 pitches. He tossed 68.2% of his pitches for strikes.

The Tigers continue to build him up slowly in his return from flexor tendon surgery, and the conservative approach to his workload could continue for the rest of the season. After all, the Tigers don’t want their ace of the future to suffer another injury.

Facing the Rays, Skubal threw 36 four-seam fastballs (41%), 18 changeups (20%), 17 sliders (19%), 11 sinkers (13%) and six knuckle curves (7%). He generated 15 whiffs with six fastballs, five changeups, three sliders and one sinker.

“He’s got a lot of good pitches,” catcher Jake Rogers said Saturday. “He’s a donkey up there. He mixed everything today, and it’s good to see that from him. They can score a lot of runs, like we saw Friday, but he shut them down.”

Typically, Skubal would have ironed out the blow-up innings issue in spring training or early in the regular season. But that wasn’t possible because he didn’t return from the injured list until July 4, making his first start since Aug. 1, 2022.

It’s another reminder of the non-linear path coming out of the rehab process.

His 1.38 FIP — which measures the events a pitcher has the most control over (strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs) and entirely removes results on balls hit into the field of play — indicates he has been significantly better than his 3.67 ERA suggests through six starts.

“In two innings, all those runs have been scored,” Skubal said. “That’s very uncharacteristic. It’s hard to give up five runs in one inning. It’s like, ‘How do I get the bleeding to stop?’ Stop trying to create the result. Just pitch.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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