'Really special': Skubal K's 9 in Seattle return

Left-hander's strong outing leads Tigers to sweep of Mariners

May 20th, 2021

The normally straight-faced Tarik Skubal made it obvious how much Wednesday’s 6-2 Tigers win in Seattle meant from his uncharacteristic emotion, from the 98 mph fastballs he pumped in the first inning to the mound dirt he grabbed after walking Sam Haggerty to lead off the fifth.

It was the familiar faces of former coaches and ex-teammates in the city where he was a college standout a few years ago, and the support of current teammates and fellow Tigers starters who pitched before him in this series, from good friend Casey Mize’s career-best outing on Monday to Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter on Tuesday.

“We’ve been talking the last couple weeks about how we want him to let it go and let it eat and kind of throw hard,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “So I thought it was to his advantage that he wanted to impress people and do well.”

With Seattle University head coach Donny Harrel and ex-teammates among more than 50 guests -- well more than Skubal expected -- he had to temper it all to get his first win since last August and lift Detroit to its first series sweep in Seattle since 2006.

“Really special, really special,” Skubal said. “It was pretty cool to bring a bunch of ex-players together with the coaching staff, and being able to see those guys was awesome. So yeah, this is a start that I’ll remember.”

Skubal threw 96 mph or harder with 11 of his 21 first-inning pitches, topping out just shy of 99. He paid for his fastball tendency early when Kyle Seager hit an 0-2 heater into the right-field seats for a two-run homer, but he settled down from there and found a mix.

Yet, after Haggerty’s fifth-inning walk following an 0-2 count, Skubal nearly worked into another trap, falling behind on a 3-0 count to No. 9 hitter José Marmolejos while trying to induce a double-play grounder. With Skubal's gem at risk, catcher Eric Haase told him to throw to the glove with the top of Seattle’s lineup looming for a third time.

Skubal then delivered his best pitching of the night. He spotted a first-pitch fastball on the outside corner and a slider inside to run the count full on Marmolejos, whose half-hearted swing at a 3-2 fastball completed the strikeout.

“The 3-1 slider, and then coming back pumping a 95 [mph] fastball by him, those are encouraging signs that he’s going to challenge the strike zone,” Hinch said.

After Jarred Kelenic’s one-out single brought the potential tying run to the plate in the fifth, Skubal went away from his fastball and sent down Mitch Haniger swinging on three pitches -- a slider and two of his best changeups since he went away from his splitter a couple starts ago.

“Great feel for pitching in that moment,” Hinch said.

Skubal's fastball averaged 94.5 mph, half a tick above his season average, and induced seven swing-and-misses. He drew just as many whiffs with his slider in just 26 pitches, spotting it up and down in the strike zone.

“I’m getting more and more comfortable with that pitch,” Skubal said. “Just being able to consistently do that, go in and out, backdoor, back foot and being able to execute that consistently is still what I’m trying to work on.”

Once Kyle Lewis fanned on a slider for Skubal’s career-best ninth strikeout, the 24-year-old southpaw let out a yell on his way off the mound and headed back to the dugout. His five innings qualified him for his first victory since his third big league outing last summer, ending a streak of 10 winless starts and improving his record to 1-6 this season.

It wasn’t quite the signature moment of Turnbull’s hug with Haase the night before, or Mize’s scowl at an eighth-inning hook in Monday’s series opener, but it followed the theme. Detroit’s starting trio held Seattle to three runs on seven hits over 21 2/3 innings, walking seven and striking out 25. Two home runs accounted for all of the Mariners' scoring.

“We got into leverage counts,” Hinch said. “We throw strikes when we’re at our best.”

The last time the Tigers swept a series in Seattle in '06, the starters were Mike Maroth, Nate Robertson and Justin Verlander, who combined for 20 innings of one-run ball on 10 hits with 10 strikeouts. The late-April sweep was a statement for where that team was headed; this week’s series was more a glimpse of what could be to come from this young rotation.