Skubal in spotlight as Tigers win 5th straight

July 21st, 2021

DETROIT -- The kids are now fronting the Tigers rotation. If there was any lingering doubt before Tuesday’s 4-1 win over the Rangers, it should be gone now.

On the day the Tigers announced that Spencer Turnbull will undergo Tommy John surgery, costing him the rest of this season and possibly next year, continued his summer breakout with six innings of one-run ball at Comerica Park, sending Detroit to a season-high five-game winning streak.

Skubal’s latest gem also came on the day that general manager Al Avila told reporters that the Tigers aren’t rebuilding anymore heading into the Trade Deadline. With Skubal, Casey Mize and Matt Manning now in the rotation, the future has arrived, at least on the pitching side.

“I don’t think there’s any added pressure,” Skubal said. “I understand the importance of starting pitching. It sets the tone and helps establish the bullpen guys and puts them in good spots to go out there and have success. I understand all that. But I think we’re all just trying to do our job and give our team a chance to win every time we toe the rubber.”

Both Turnbull and Matthew Boyd went on the injured list in June, and were originally hoped to return after the All-Star break. While Turnbull’s injury turned out to be chronic damage in his elbow, Boyd (left arm discomfort) isn’t expected back until August. Add José Ureña (right groin strain) and Julio Teheran (right shoulder strain), and the only members of the Tigers’ season-opening rotation who remain are Mize and Skubal.

Add in Manning, who was recalled from Triple-A Toledo to face the Rangers on Wednesday, and all three of the Tigers’ top prospects from a year ago are not only in the Majors, they’re playing significant roles. The one veteran starter is Wily Peralta, who was promoted from Toledo last month.

Skubal (6-8), however, continues to pitch beyond his years and experience level, in this case adjusting his high-strikeout arsenal against an aggressive lineup to get outs on contact. He gave up hits to two of his first three batters Tuesday to put runners at the corners, but escaped by jamming Rangers All-Star slugger Joey Gallo into a popout before starting a pickoff that eventually nabbed Eli White trying to steal home.

“That was a turning point in the game,” catcher Eric Haase said. “That could’ve went south just as quickly we got out of it.”

From there, Skubal rolled, retiring 11 consecutive batters before Nathaniel Lowe’s infield single and Andy Ibáñez’s double off the right-field fence produced the Rangers’ lone run.

While Skubal produced eight swings and misses out of 83 pitches, a relatively low total for him, half came off his changeup, a pitch that has been a work in progress for him ever since he broke into the Majors last summer. His four-seam fastball and sinker both had extra velocity, averaging around 95 mph according to Statcast, possibly reflecting the benefit of a long rest around the All-Star break.

“I think every good outing that I have, every outing that I pitch a little bit better, my changeup is usually always there,” Skubal said. “I face a lot of righties, so that’s the pitch that keeps them honest.”

At some point soon, Skubal will face the same innings restrictions that Mize is going through right now. But as long as the limits are off, he’s one of the most reliable members of the rotation, a huge leap forward after a rough start to the season.

Two months earlier, Skubal was among MLB’s leaders in losses and home runs allowed, saddled with a 1-7 record to go with a 5.23 ERA in his first eight starts, plus two relief appearances. Since then, he’s 5-1 with a 3.31 ERA in nine starts, seven of them Tigers victories, allowing 43 hits over 51 2/3 innings with 60 strikeouts.

The results have come to match the stuff.

“It’s not a surprise,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I think it shows that people can learn to be just a little patient with young pitching when they reach the big leagues. I mean, his stuff is incredible. His makeup is excellent. His preparedness is great. His mind, the way it works during a game, the game has slowed down a little bit for him. He’s very, very sharp with what he’s wanting to do and how he’s going about it.

“This is development at this level. We’re watching it and we should enjoy it. And he can get even better. There’s areas of his game that he’s going to continue to nurture and grow in, and that’s exciting to me. He’s a front-line guy that has the makeup to back it up.”