Skubal impresses but Tigers left queasy
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire had to leave the dugout with a stomach virus while Tarik Skubal and Kenta Maeda were involved in a pitching duel Saturday night at Target Field. By the time the Twins rallied in the ninth off of the Tigers’ bullpen, others could be excused for an uneasy feeling.
“Our last four losses have been gut-wrenching losses for us,” bench coach Lloyd McClendon said of the Tigers’ losing streak after the Twins rallied with two ninth-inning runs for a 4-3 Detroit defeat. “We’re actually playing pretty good baseball, and that’s the perception-and-reality of things. You lose four in a row and people think you’re going into the tank, but the fact is, we’ve played good baseball.”
The Tigers have three losses over two days in Minnesota by a total of four runs. Their doubleheader sweep Friday included a blown lead in regulation before losing in extras. Saturday’s runoff loss, however, was a unique end to a classic pitching duel.
As Byron Buxton bolted down the first-base line on his two-out, ninth-inning grounder, his sprint speed reached 31.0 ft./sec according to Statcast. Willi Castro, now the Tigers’ everyday shortstop with Niko Goodrum on the injured list, already knew to get to the ball and get rid of it as soon as possible. He charged the ball and threw across the infield to an outstretched Jeimer Candelario at first base. But he couldn’t beat Buxton.
“This guy might be the best runner in baseball, especially on a swinging bunt,” McClendon said. “It’s a tough play.”
Castro will be better from it, just as Tarik Skubal’s six innings of two-hit, one-run ball against a formidable Twins lineup in a meaningful September game provided the best glimpse yet of the potential of the Tigers’ future rotation. None of that soothes the short-term frustration of another close loss.
“These have been very good games, but it’s baseball,” said Victor Reyes, whose leadoff home run was Detroit’s only hit off of Maeda until a two-run seventh. “Those have been pitching duels, clutch-hitting games. We have to keep fighting. Tomorrow is another day.”
The same should be said for Gardenhire, who apparently was improving after receiving attention in the Tigers' clubhouse.
“He's feeling much better,” McClendon said. “He just couldn't come back out and finish the game.”
On a night when the Tigers needed a pitching gem to hang with Maeda, they got it from Skubal in his fourth Major League start. A week after Skubal earned his first big league win against the Twins with five innings of two-run ball, he came back for the rematch with a new changeup grip he tinkered with between starts with help from Matthew Boyd. The pitch proved vital to quieting the Bomba Squad for the first half of the game.
“I actually changed the whole pitch this week in between starts, just because I wasn’t liking where it was at,” Skubal said. “Changed it up a little bit, and I got some positive feedback. I did leave some elevated in the zone, but that’s just execution. I liked where that pitch was at today.”
Skubal had more swings and misses his first trip through the Twins order Saturday (seven) than he did in his five innings last week (six). He retired Minnesota’s first 10 batters in order before walking Donaldson on four pitches, providing an opportunity for Tiger tamer Nelson Cruz, who hit a tape-measure homer off Skubal last week. Skubal regrouped quickly to put Cruz in an 0-2 hole before using the changeup for an inning-ending double play.
“He’s starting to settle in,” McClendon said. “I think the goosebumps are gone and the sweaty palms are gone. He’s starting to believe that he belongs, and that’s important. You see it in the tempo. You can see it in his mannerisms. He’s throwing the ball a lot better.”
Skubal faced the minimum through his first four innings while protecting a 1-0 lead on Reyes' leadoff homer. Back-to-back singles from Brent Rooker and Miguel Sanó ended any no-hit aspirations and put the lead in jeopardy. Again, Skubal regrouped, getting a comebacker from Eddie Rosario for a double play to hold the damage at a run.
Not since Drew Smyly has a Tigers pitcher delivered at least six innings of one-run ball or better on two hits or fewer in one of his first four Major League starts, according to Tigers media relations. Smyly’s gem, too, came on a big stage, at Yankee Stadium on April 28, 2012. In that case, the Tigers led big before withstanding a three-run ninth. For Skubal, they didn’t have nearly as much room; their go-ahead rally in the seventh also included a bases-loaded, no-out opportunity squandered with a chance to break the game open.
Those missed runs immediately loomed large after Sanó’s homer off of Joe Jiménez in the bottom of the inning brought the Twins to within a run. The winning rally off Jose Cisnero began with a Donaldson leadoff walk and a Cruz comebacker that hit off of Cisnero and bounced to third base for an infield single. Sanó’s ground ball through the left side tied it before Buxton sprinted down the first-base line for the win.