ANAHEIM — The quick turn and bunt from Angels leadoff batter Kyren Paris caught so many off-guard that all Tarik Skubal could do was scramble off the mound and fumble it. It was Skubal’s first pitch of the fourth inning, having retired the Angels’ first nine batters in order with four strikeouts.
In a vacuum, the bunt single could have looked like an underhanded attempt to spoil a bid at perfection before it could pick up steam. But with a three-run game in the fourth inning, it was their best way to try to get anything going against the Tigers left-hander. And that might be the best compliment to how effective Skubal was on Friday night at Angel Stadium.
“Probably a different discussion if it happens in the seventh or the eighth,” Skubal said. “But it’s way early in the game, so I’m not really worried. It was a perfect bunt, too.”
Only a finger issue (his fingernail digging into his thumb) could stop him from piling up scoreless innings. He still ended up with seven frames of one-run ball on three hits with no walks and nine strikeouts. By the time David Fletcher’s seventh-inning drive clanked off the foul pole, Detroit was comfortably in command, a position cemented by a seven-run eighth inning in an 11-2 win.
After a nearly lost season due to flexor tendon surgery, followed by a careful ramp-up in his return to the rotation, this was Skubal unleashed. He lowered his ERA to 3.25 in 13 starts since his July 4 return. He’ll still get an extra day of rest before his final two starts, but there’s nothing holding him from being the front-line starter he was blossoming into before surgery last summer. That includes workload, having thrown seven innings in two of his last three starts.
“He goes out there expecting to give his team a chance to win,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He wants to go as deep as he can. He has a full array of pitches. And he’s elite. And I think as he’s starting to grow into that type of responsibility, he’s taking it seriously.”
Those comments, especially the elite part, resonated with the 26-year-old left-hander.
“It feels good,” Skubal said. “I know he has a ton of confidence in me, and it’s much appreciated, for sure.”
Hinch wasn’t the only one with that thought. Just outside of center-field camera view, between home plate and the Tigers dugout, Skubal’s agent Scott Boras stood in one of Angel Stadium’s dugout suites, charting Skubal’s pitches.
He had a lot to track. Skubal came out hot, throwing a 98 mph fastball past Randal Grichuk for the final out of the second inning before hitting 99 mph on fastballs and sinkers to strike out Jordyn Adams and Brett Phillips in the third. While his heater dropped back into the low to mid-90s at times, he was still reaching back for extra as late as the sixth, sending a 98 mph high fastball past Zach Neto for his eighth strikeout.
Once Skubal hit the inside edge of the plate on a 3-2 changeup for a called third strike on red-hot catcher Logan O’Hoppe to end the sixth, Skubal had struck out seven of the Angels’ starting nine — everyone except Fletcher and Brandon Drury.
While the Angels’ lineup was missing former AL Most Valuable Players Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani (both injured), the starting nine still had hitters with track records for extending at-bats and making pitchers miserable. Skubal not only shut them down until Fletcher’s homer, he did so efficiently, throwing 66 of 91 pitches for strikes.
By spotting his four-seamer and sinker for 10 called strikes combined, he set up his changeup for 11 swings and misses. The sinker has been Skubal’s fourth pitch this season, but he played it off his four-seam fastball with encouraging results, showing another wrinkle in his arsenal. His slider and curveball were big players for this show, but he didn’t need them for much, the way he commanded the fastballs.
“He was dotting it up today, especially in,” catcher Jake Rogers said. “He was throwing in, throwing up, throwing down. Everything was working.”
Said Skubal: “[Innings] one through seven, I felt good. Even when I was kind of running out of gas there at the end, I felt like I still a good amount in the tank. I feel good. I’m going to feel good tomorrow. That’s what you want to have.”