Skubal takes step forward while pitching backwards in windy win

April 13th, 2024

DETROIT -- The last time left the mound at Comerica Park, he walked into the dugout and slammed his glove against the wall. He had tired near the end of his outing in the Tigers’ home opener, and gave up four runs.

As he battled through the third and fourth innings Friday against the Twins, Skubal looked like he could be at risk of a repeat. His fastball, which reached 99.6 mph in a first-inning strikeout, was down around 94-95, and his command was in and out. He didn’t get some close calls that he wanted, and his frustration was building.

“I kind of let some things go that probably don't need to be said,” Skubal said. “But that's part of competing, I think.”

Instead of losing his temper, he lost his first-pitch fastball and started pitching in reverse instead, using changeups and sliders early in counts to set up fastballs with two strikes.

His five scoreless innings with five strikeouts won’t go into any Cy Young highlight reel. It wasn’t necessarily glamorous, certainly not as overpowering as his early innings, but it was effective. And as he watched the Tigers pull away for an 8-2 win to open a four-game series against the defending AL Central champs, it was a winning effort.

On a cold, damp, blustery night with an hour-long rain delay, Skubal came out firing fastballs, including the aforementioned 99 to fan Byron Buxton, on his way to retiring Minnesota’s first eight batters in order. Both Twins hits were infield singles to short, and just two balls in play reached the outfield, a blessing on a windy night. Still, Minnesota made Skubal work with long at-bats, including 25 pitches over a three-batter span in the fourth inning.

They weren’t necessarily wearing him down. But as the wind gusted, Skubal said he struggled to grip and command his fastball, leading him to take something off and eventually work away from it.

“Just getting a grip and letting it rip is tough when it's windy,” Skubal said. “It's not so much cold. It's just the wind kind of dries everything out, so it makes it a little tougher to grip the ball.”

Earlier in Skubal’s career, when he was searching for an effective changeup -- remember his ill-fated splitter? -- that could be trouble. On Friday, his changeup kept him in a duel with Twins ace Pablo López.

“It's a very good pitch against this team,” catcher Jake Rogers said of Minnesota’s right-handed lineup. “It's also one of his best pitches, I think. He has a lot of pitches to work with, but that's one pitch we knew we were going to throw.”

After Edouard Julien’s infield single and Manuel Margot’s two-out walk extended the third inning for Carlos Correa, Skubal leaned on the changeup, throwing three in a row after flipping a first-pitch curveball into the zone. The third changeup caught the same inside corner that the curveball did, drawing a called third strike from home-plate umpire Adam Beck.

The next inning, Skubal’s changeup opened a 10-pitch battle with Buxton. Skubal went three times to the fastball with two strikes, all to different parts of the zone. Buxton fouled off all of them. Finally, Skubal went back to the changeup at the knees for a called third strike.

“I tip my cap to him,” Buxton said. “He was good. It’s one of those nights where everything seemed to be on.”

That set the tone for a long inning that ended with two runners stranded on an Austin Martin groundout. But with the pitch count climbing and velocity dropping, Skubal was at his best in the fifth. His slider and changeup made the normally disciplined Carlos Santana look free-swinging. Three sliders in a row to Julien set up a 94 mph heater at the top of the zone. Back-to-back changeups put Margot in an 0-2 hole, allowing Skubal to try some fastballs out of the zone before finally getting a popout on a slider.

“I think Rog has a great feel back there,” Skubal said. “He knew the fastball wasn't as crisp as it was early. He kind of dictates what I throw. I think that's why I started going backwards, because I didn't have great feel for the heater.”

Skubal threw almost as many changeups (28) as four-seam fastballs (31). It drew half of his 20 called strikes and four of his seven swings and misses. It also showed the ability to pitch backwards for Skubal is a big step forward.