CLEVELAND -- Tarik Skubal has been about as imposing of a presence as the Tigers have on the mound since his return from the injured list, but he was even more impressive when he ventured off of it for a split second with Guardians All-Star José Ramírez up in the third inning Friday afternoon. Skubal wasn’t pouncing on a ground ball; he was picking up what remained of Ramírez's bat along the third-base line.
Ramírez's latest bat lasted just two pitches before splintering on a Skubal changeup, in almost the same spot that his previous bat cracked on a Skubal changeup a couple pitches earlier.
“Same exact way, too,” Skubal said.
Skubal’s retrieval was as much of a humble brag as an assist to the bat boy who had to run out of the dugout. Ramírez was almost thankful to be jammed on a 98.6 mph fastball on the next pitch for a groundout to short.
That third-inning groundout was the only time Skubal retired Ramírez in three at-bats, but it was emblematic of how Skubal was dealing, and how he set the tone to start the Tigers’ sixth doubleheader of the season with a 4-2 win over the Guardians at Progressive Field. Ramírez was the fourth of 12 consecutive batters Skubal retired from the second inning into the sixth -- six by strikeout, four on grounders.
Skubal had been scheduled to pitch Thursday’s series opener but had to wait a day thanks to a rainout. The doubleheader matched him up against Guardians rookie sensation Gavin Williams for a duel under the late-afternoon shadows, but the much-anticipated pitching duel never materialized. The Tigers ambushed Williams for three first-inning runs, starting with Akil Baddoo’s leadoff homer on the game’s second pitch, and Skubal held Cleveland to an Oscar Gonzalez RBI single in the bottom of the inning.
Skubal allowed just three hits -- two from Ramírez -- over six innings of one-run ball with a walk and seven strikeouts. What was already a tough task for Cleveland hitters to square him up became trickier as the shadows settled over the batter's box, giving hitters a little less light to track pitches and see spin from the mound to home plate.
With his command shaky, Skubal went off his usual script of sliders and curveballs to dominate the Guardians with mostly fastballs and changeups, the latter a feast-or-famine pitch since his return. While his 37.8 percent whiff rate on changeups entering the day marked his highest of any pitch, his .300 batting average allowed on the pitch was also the highest in his repertoire, according to Statcast.
But Guardians hitters swung and missed on seven changeups Friday, the same total as his fastball, including strikeouts of Ramón Laureano in the third inning, Gonzalez and Gabriel Arias in the fourth and Myles Straw in the fifth.
“I think I was just landing it a lot,” Skubal said. “I didn’t really command anything well for the first two innings, kind of all over the place. [Catcher Jake Rogers] stuck with me, and that’s the pitch I was commanding early in counts to get ahead of guys. That kind of dictated it, and then you read swings.
"They’re not reading it well, swinging over it a lot, grounding out, all positive results. You just stick with it until they prove that they’re going to hit or start taking it again.”
Skubal’s other three strikeouts came on fastballs, including a 97.5 mph heater on the inside corner to freeze Tyler Freeman in the third inning.
“He has ace stuff,” said Kerry Carpenter, whose RBI single helped build Detroit’s early lead. “He can go six or seven innings, no runs, any time he goes out.”
Skubal has shown signs of doing that at various points, and tossed five scoreless innings with nine strikeouts last month against the Giants. But his previous three road starts this summer all turned on a big inning -- a five-run fourth at Kansas City, a four-run fifth in Miami, a three-run homer in the fourth inning at Boston last weekend.
That made Skubal’s first-inning damage control and second-inning adjustment all the more valuable. Not only did the big inning never arrive for Cleveland, Skubal cruised fairly easily after those two hits in the first.
“He’s got really good stuff,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said.