Skubal mirrors this ’68 World Series champ in win vs. Sox

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — The Tigers celebrated the 55th anniversary of their 1968 World Series by bringing back a half-dozen players from that club for pregame festivities before taking in Saturday’s game against the White Sox from the club suites. While former swingman John Hiller showed off his 80-year-old left arm with a solid ceremonial first pitch to present-day Tigers equivalent Tyler Holton, Mickey Lolich — the burly left-hander who was the hero of that World Series with three victories — had a chance to watch Detroit’s current big lefty, Tarik Skubal.

Skubal learned about Lolich when he broke Lolich’s rookie strikeout record, but they’ve never had a chance to meet and talk. As Skubal shut down the White Sox in a 3-1 Tigers win, Skubal’s second victory over Chicago in seven days, one could squint and see glimpses of Lolich beyond the number 29 on his back. 

Instead of overthinking a different approach facing the White Sox twice in a week, Skubal stayed direct and attacked Chicago’s lineup, challenging them to adjust before he did. Though Skubal had a wider arsenal than Lolich did, he leaned heavily on his fastball and changeup, drawing 17 of his 19 swinging strikes, nine of his 14 called strikes and eight of his nine strikeouts between the two. He didn’t allow a runner past first base after Tim Anderson’s leadoff single opened the game, and he allowed just two balls in play with exit velocities over 100 miles per hour according to Statcast.

One key, obvious difference: Skubal only did it for five scoreless innings Saturday, pitching in front of a hurler who tossed 195 career complete games — not including postseason — and owns the last 300-inning season by a Detroit pitcher back in 1974. Nobody will match that, but as he reviewed his scoreless performance, it’s clear Skubal expects deeper outings.

“That’s kind of the frustrating part, right? Way too many 0-2 to 3-2 [counts],” said Skubal, who tossed seven innings in Chicago last weekend. “If you get to 0-2, that at-bat should be over within four pitches. Take your shot, and then get right back after it in the zone. I think I just had too many uncompetitive misses today. The stuff that I had today, I thought was pretty good. Nine strikeouts are always good, but you can get that in seven innings as well.”

Yes, Lolich and Skubal could find a lot to relate about.

“He’s so hard on himself about not going deeper or not punching guys out or the [two-out] walk to [Andrew] Benintendi, the things that good pitchers obsess over,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “But I will take that tonight, especially with how we got into the game. It was a super close game, and he continued to post what he could.”

The Benintendi walk was particularly frustrating for Skubal because that was the only lefty-lefty matchup he had in Chicago’s righty-heavy starting lineup. He had settled down after Anderson’s leadoff single to alternate strikeouts and groundouts, and had just frozen Anderson on a 96 mph fastball for a called third strike for the second out of the third inning, when he fell behind Benintendi and lost him on a 3-1 pitch.

“That guy should get out more times than not, and especially not walk,” Skubal said. “That’s kind of the outing, just too many big misses. And then I have to face [Luis] Robert; he hits left-handed pitching really well, and you don’t want a two-run bomb to beat you there.”

Skubal put Robert in an 0-2 hole with back-to-back changeups at the bottom of the zone, and should’ve drawn a called third strike on a 96 mph fastball that appeared to be in the zone. The count went full from there, but Skubal executed another changeup on the payoff pitch to fan Robert and end the threat.

That Skubal can expect better from himself just a dozen starts back from flexor tendon surgery says a lot about not just his personality, but his health. He had gone at least six innings in each of his previous four starts without crossing the 100-pitch mark. In the process, he has looked more and more like the front-line starter he was developing into before the injury ended his season last August.

As the Tigers look ahead and ponder their 2024 rotation, with or without Eduardo Rodriguez at the top, a healthy Skubal gives them a foundation, much like Lolich did from the glory years of the late 1960s into the ‘70s.

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