DETROIT -- The Tigers’ piggyback starters did their part. Now they need some offensive support to help carry the load.
The Tigers have lost nine of their last 10 games, scoring 18 runs in that span after scoring at least six runs in each of their three games in sweeping Houston last week. They’ve scored three runs in as many games against the Royals, who blanked them Sunday behind Danny Duffy and three relievers for a 4-0 loss. It’s a low-scoring trend that resembled series sweeps at the hands of Cleveland and Oakland.
The offensive struggles leave little margin for mistakes by Tigers pitchers, a pressure compounded by the Royals’ contact and running game. The latter is the kind of pressure manager A.J. Hinch would eventually like his offense to produce, but the struggles to make consistent contact preclude that, including 38 strikeouts through three games against Kansas City.
“We’ve all gone through it if you’ve been in this game, and it’s aggravating, it’s maddening, it’s frustrating, everything you can think of,” Hinch said. “… It’s not something that the guys are just blowing off. We’re trying to find solutions, and the harder you try and the more you do and not get results, it continues to weigh on guys.
“We’ve seen this offense get kick-started in a couple different ways. And when we can throw the first punch, then we’ve got an opportunity to build off of that. But right now I see a team that’s pressing quite a bit to do anything they can, and the harder we try, the less effective we’ve been.”
For now, the Tigers have to lean on their pitching to keep them in games and hope that their hitters can do enough to pull out a game, a change from early in the season. The retinkered rotation is doing its part and bringing renewed life out of a couple of arms in the process.
Amidst the offensive struggles, the Tigers have used their modified six-man rotation -- a trendy term for five starters and a piggyback reliever -- to solidify their starting pitching. While Michael Fulmer continues to look a little more like his younger form, Tarik Skubal has regained some of his dynamic arsenal in a piggyback role.
Fulmer pitched on short rest thanks to Wednesday’s doubleheader, but he showed no effect aside from some first-inning command woes. The former All-Star overcame two first-inning walks and a wild pitch with a 95 mph fastball for a called third strike on Ryan O’Hearn, stranding runners at second and third. A second-inning ground-ball single was all Fulmer allowed the rest of the way.
Fulmer needed just 36 pitches over three innings, but Skubal was warming as he worked the third. That was the plan, helped by the left-handed hitters in the bottom half of the Royals’ batting order. Despite a hit-by-pitch on a splitter that bounced in the dirt, Skubal’s second turn in relief showed the kind of boost Fulmer received out of the bullpen to begin the season. Skubal’s fastball averaged 94.4 mph according to Statcast, a tick up from his season average of 93.6 mph. He threw fewer splitters, but effective ones. He induced 12 swings and misses in 61 pitches over 2 2/3 innings.
“From a stuff and pitch execution standpoint, I thought I did pretty well today,” Skubal said. “I don’t think the results matched how I felt.”
That’s because the Royals beat Skubal with two bloops and a blast. Michael A. Taylor’s leadoff single in the fifth had just a 66.5 mph exit velocity, but it put him on base for Nicky Lopez’s sac bunt to advance him. Taylor stole third on Skubal before Whit Merrifield blooped a one-out single into shallow center field to score him.
The Royals averaged a 79.5 mph exit velocity on balls in play off Skubal, but the one hard-hit ball provided an insurance run. Skubal tried to hit the outside corner on a fastball to Hunter Dozier but left it over the plate. Hunter drilled it off the bullpen dugout beyond the left-field fence with a 109.4 mph exit velocity.
Skubal finished with four hits, no walks and three strikeouts. Stuff-wise, the Tigers will take the progress while they try to put their offense back together. Danny Duffy held them to four hits over five innings with no walks and eight strikeouts before three relievers finished the shutout, capped by Wade Davis in the ninth.