For Tigers rotation, it's 1939 all over again

May 21st, 2022

CLEVELAND -- George Lombard wasn’t looking for any sympathy Friday night as he talked about the latest Tigers starting pitching injury. The Tigers bench coach, filling in as manager for an ill A.J. Hinch, watched Detroit ace limp off the field at the end of five scoreless innings.

“It’s difficult,” Lombard said after the Guardians roughed up his bullpen for a 6-1 Tigers loss at Progressive Field. “But when everyone signed that contract in there and in our coaches’ room, no one said it was going to be easy. It’s very difficult.”

Skubal’s scoreless streak is still intact, now at 19 innings -- most by a Tigers starter since 2016. More importantly, his leg is intact as well.

“It feels like I got hit in the leg by a comebacker, but other than that, I feel good,” said Skubal, his left shin bandaged after contact with a 100.4 mph comebacker. “I’m going to take it day by day, but I’m very optimistic. With what happened and where I got hit, I feel pretty good and I’ll do everything I can to prepare to start in five days.”

Skubal will undergo further evaluation and testing on Saturday.

If Lombard had been looking for any sympathy, however, he could have looked to the 1939 Tigers.

Del Baker entered 1939 in his first full season as Detroit manager, having replaced the great Mickey Cochrane at midseason the previous year. Baker had gone 37-19-1 down the stretch to salvage a winning record and establish himself, but he churned through starting pitchers in 1939. Schoolboy Rowe missed a couple of weeks early in the season and received extra rest between starts once he returned. Vern Kennedy struggled in four starts and was traded with three other pitchers in a 10-player deal for Bobo Newsom, who joined Detroit’s rotation. Al Benton was among others who jumped between the rotation and bullpen.

The 1939 Tigers used 12 different starters through their first 40 games, a mark that remains not only the franchise record but shares the AL/NL mark with five other clubs, most recently last year’s Blue Jays. The list includes such names as Henry “Cotton” Pippen, George “Slick” Coffman, Roxie Lawson, George Gill and Bob Harris. Fifteen different pitchers started by season’s end, including an 18-year-old Hal Newhouser making his MLB debut to begin a Hall of Fame career.

Ten different pitchers have started a game for the Tigers this season, second only to the 1939 club. This year’s number will likely rise on Sunday, the Tigers’ 41st game. Detroit currently doesn’t have a starter listed for that series finale. Elvin Rodriguez, who began the season in Detroit’s bullpen, stretched out as a starter in Toledo before the Tigers added him to their taxi squad this week. Tuesday’s game at Minnesota is also without a starter; that was Eduardo Rodriguez’s slot before his injury.

If the Tigers use new starters Sunday and Tuesday, they’ll match the 1939 club mark with 12 different starters through 50 games. This year’s catalyst for turnover hasn’t been the trade market, or even struggles, but the injured list.

With Skubal’s exit, every starter from the Tigers’ season-opening rotation has left a game with some sort of injury:

  • Casey Mize is in Lakeland, Fla., on a throwing program after struggling in a rehab start for Triple-A Toledo last week. He made two starts for Detroit before going on the injured list with a right elbow sprain.
  • Matt Manning also made just two starts for the Tigers before going on the IL with right shoulder soreness. He was on track to return next week until he struggled with dehydration Thursday in his third rehab start for Toledo. He’ll need one more rehab outing before potentially returning.
  • Eduardo Rodriguez left his start Wednesday at Tampa Bay in the first inning with left side soreness. He received good news Thursday when doctors in Florida found no serious damage, and the Tigers have held off on an IL move for now, though Hinch says that move will likely happen.
  • Tyler Alexander remains in Lakeland after going on the IL May 2 with a left elbow sprain.
  • In addition, Michael Pineda -- who jumped into Detroit’s rotation after Alexander’s injury -- is out for at least a month after fracturing his right middle finger on a comebacker last week.

“We might have to start lighting some sage or something, I don’t know,” Skubal joked. “It’s been pretty tough, a lot of weird stuff going on. We’re all trying to get healthy and get back to playing baseball. It’s just unfortunate.”

Skubal’s injury ended his latest gem, having limited Cleveland to four hits while striking out five. He retired 11 of his final 13 batters, with one of the two baserunners he allowed in that span retired via a caught stealing. A José Ramírez three-run home run put the Guardians in command against Jacob Barnes, who had to hurry to warm up as the Tigers batted in the sixth.

“I felt like I had a lot more left in the tank,” Skubal said. “Outs were coming on the ground, exactly like I had planned. It’s just unfortunate that I had to come out of the game. That’s what I was upset about.”

The 1939 Tigers eventually overcame their turnover. They lost 20 of their first 30 games before finishing 81-73-1. A year later, with Newhouser in the rotation, they won the American League pennant. This year’s Tigers, now 13-26, hope for a similar rebound.