Tigers' past, future on display in Zim, Skubal

September 27th, 2020

did not get a farewell ceremony for what is likely his final start as a Tiger, but he received plenty of hugs in the dugout after his first and only inning in Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. He also got to pass the baton, so to speak, to the next generation.

While Zimmermann warmed up for his start in the outfield, was out there with him. As Zimmermann fanned American League Central nemesis Salvador Perez with a wipeout slider on likely his final pitch in a Detroit uniform to end the inning, Skubal was wrapping up his warmup tosses in the bullpen.

After Zimmermann served as the opener as a thank you for five seasons in Detroit’s rotation, Skubal spent the next five innings reminding everyone why the Tigers believe he has great years ahead. He also picked up where he left his pitching duel with Royals rookie and fellow MLB 2018 Draft pick Brady Singer from 12 days earlier, continuing what will become a familiar matchup in the years to come.

“It won’t be just a few years; they’ll be around for quite a while,” interim manager Lloyd McClendon said. “You and I will be in rocking chairs and they’ll still be here. They’re special, and they’ll grow.”

Skubal, the 255th overall pick in 2018, allowed just two hits -- solo homers from Adalberto Mondesi and Ryan McBroom. Singer, the 18th pick that year, allowed three hits over seven innings, retiring 18 of his final 19 batters after Brandon Dixon’s first-inning RBI double put Detroit in front.

Skubal’s outing was a microcosm of the progress the 23-year-old has made since he debuted on Aug. 18 and struggled to spot offspeed pitches. Half of his six strikeouts came off his changeup, a pitch that improved over the last few weeks. Two more strikeouts came on his slider, another on a 95 mph fastball at the top of the strike zone. Perez and Hunter Dozier, right-handed hitters both, struck out twice.

“I’ll tell you what, two weeks ago I wouldn’t have thrown four straight offspeeds to Mondesi. I would’ve thrown a fastball in there,” Skubal said. “So in terms of development and confidence in my stuff and getting down the mound the way I want to and little mechanical changes that I’ve made throughout the year, I’m really excited.”

Skubal put two-strike counts on 16 of the 18 batters he faced, including both home runs leading off the fourth and fifth innings. The only struggles Skubal faced at times was finishing off hitters. The at-bat before he peppered Mondesi with offspeed pitches, he tried to follow a swing-and-miss changeup with a high fastball, but caught enough of the top of the strike zone for Mondesi to drive it out to tie the game.

Skubal joined the many Tigers pitchers who have struggled to figure out Mondesi. His second home run in as many games was his 11th hit of the four-game series; he added a 12th hit and an insurance run with an eighth-inning RBI double off Daniel Norris. Eight of Mondesi’s 32 career home runs have been hit off Detroit pitchers.

An inning later, Skubal put McBroom in an 0-2 hole with two called strikes, including a sharp curveball he dropped onto the inside corner. His 0-2 changeup was off the plate, but his 1-2 slider hung, allowing McBroom to connect and send it 412 feet to left.

That was enough support for Singer to outpitch him once again. It was not enough to spoil his very encouraging stretch run. After posting a 7.27 ERA over his first five starts, Skubal allowed six runs on 10 hits over 14 2/3 innings for a 3.68 ERA over his final three outings, along with 20 strikeouts and three walks.

“I wish that wasn’t my last outing,” Skubal said. “I want to keep pitching. I feel really good and really strong right now. I feel like I’m getting a lot better, but I’ll just take that into the offseason and get back to work.”

The Tigers signed Zimmermann five years ago to try to keep their window of contention open. The progress Skubal made this season, plus the lessons fellow top pitching prospect Casey Mize learned in his starts, are the best hope yet for Detroit to open that window again soon.