OAKLAND — Pitching with his own lively cheering section just behind the Tigers’ dugout along the first-base line, Tarik Skubal was in his element on Thursday night at the Coliseum.
Armed with an arsenal of pitches that saw the left-hander offer up the most changeups he’s thrown in a single start in his career (32), Skubal kept the A’s off-balance for seven innings in Detroit’s 7-3 series-opening win.
In his fourth career start in Oakland, the Hayward, Calif., native looked as comfortable as he has since making his season debut in early July after returning from flexor tendon surgery.
That’ll happen when you’re pitching in front of enthusiastic friends and family in the stands.
“I’ve got a lot of family from here,” Skubal said. “To be able to throw in front of my grandparents, that’s pretty special. Aunts, uncles, cousins and stuff, you don’t take that stuff for granted. … There’s definitely motivation there.”
That motivation was evident with Skubal’s performance, which blended the changeup and four-seamer to the tune of 65% of his 87 pitches.
“The full year, I’ve felt pretty confident in those two pitches,” said Skubal. “The velocity is there, the separation’s there, and the execution has been pretty good so far. So I’ll stick the course and continue to get better at it.”
In the home dugout, A’s manager Mark Kotsay was impressed.
“At one point,” Kotsay said, “I went to talk to our pitchers, especially [Ken Waldichuk] and said, ‘Hey, watch this guy.’ He was really dominating our hitters with that fastball-changeup mix. You can see how effective it was.”
Skubal utilized the changeup to coax nine of his 14 whiffs on the night, as well as the final pitch for five of his 10 strikeouts — falling just one strikeout shy of his career high.
A seventh-inning walk to Esteury Ruiz was Skubal’s only free pass, and ended a streak of retiring 11 straight and 13 of 14 in his final frame.
“Putaway pitches, soft contact, low pitch count, everything that you like about pitching, Tarik did tonight,” said manager A.J. Hinch.
Skubal now has a 1.41 ERA (5 ER in 32 innings and a 0.69 WHIP) with 35 strikeouts to just four walks across his last five starts dating back to Aug. 29 — an electric run for the 26-year-old, whom the Tigers hope will be a big part of their immediate future.
“The more he can have multiple weapons, the better he’s gonna be,” reflected Hinch on Skubal. “And he stayed with it tonight, he was completely dominant.”
Offensively, the Tigers had their way with Luis Medina and a parade of Oakland relievers, scoring seven runs on nine hits and benefiting from three A’s errors. Matt Vierling, Kerry Carpenter and Andy Ibáñez each recorded two hits, with Ibáñez also driving in a pair of runs.
Brenan Hanifee, who received his first callup to the Majors earlier this week seven years after he was drafted by the Orioles out of high school, navigated the final two frames. Hanifee recorded two strikeouts in his debut, though he was tagged for three runs in the ninth, two coming on a home run struck by A’s All-Star Brent Rooker.
“First homer to an All-Star,” said Hinch with a grin. “That first inning, really good for him to get in there. Unfortunately he gave up a couple runs, but tonight will be a blur for him. He made it to the big leagues. He’ll always be able to call himself a big leaguer.”
But the night very much belonged to Skubal, who gave the Tigers the sort of performance they know he’s capable of delivering on a regular basis.
Coming on the heels of a similarly strong performance from right-hander Reese Olson in Los Angeles, the Tigers have to feel optimistic about this dynamic one-two punch in their rotation.
“When you see how our rotation’s pitched in the last month and a half or so — and we’re not even fully healthy yet — it’s a good sign,” said Hinch of a Tigers staff that has been showing out down the stretch to the tune of a 2.99 ERA since Aug. 15, the best such mark in the Majors.
“When you get success like this, especially in back-to-back games and in many of the games over the last six weeks, it’s encouraging for what’s ahead and the group of pitchers that we can put together,” added Hinch.