Skubal K's 9, wins on boyhood favorites' field

July 22nd, 2022

OAKLAND -- used to watch as a young fan as Barry Zito took the Oakland Coliseum mound and snapped off the dazzling curves that baffled Major League hitters for years.

Skubal found himself toeing that same mound Thursday, and he stymied the Athletics for six dominant innings, leading the Tigers to a 7-2 victory over Oakland in the first game of a doubleheader.

The left-hander -- who was born in Hayward, Calif., about 19 miles southeast of Oakland -- held the A’s to two hits and one unearned run, striking out nine and walking two. He earned the victory in front of several family members who cheered him on at the Coliseum.

“I remember watching Eric Chavez back in the day,” Skubal said. “He was my favorite player growing up. And Zito was that lefty, [with] that big, big breaking ball. It’s iconic, so it’s pretty cool to come and play here.”

Robbie Grossman, who played for the A's in 2019-20, drove in three runs on a pair of doubles and made a terrific catch in left field as the Tigers snapped the four-game losing streak that took them into the All-Star break. Javier Báez had three hits for Detroit and Jeimer Candelario had a solo homer in the seventh.

In the nightcap, Detroit was held to four hits by Frankie Montas and five Oakland relievers and lost 5-0. The doubleheader split capped a whirlwind trip to Oakland for the Tigers, thanks to the lockout that delayed the start of the season and brought logistical challenges to the Major League schedule.

The Tigers flew to the Bay Area on Wednesday simply to play Thursday’s doubleheader. After finishing the second game, they got right back on their charter and returned to Detroit for the start of a two-game series with Minnesota on Saturday.

“It’s a weird thing to come for one day, but we knew this in April,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “When the lockout ended, we knew we’d have a quick trip.”

Skubal’s travel itinerary was more convenient.

He split his All-Star break between his own offseason home in Chandler, Ariz., and Kingman, Ariz., where his family moved from the Bay Area when he was 12.

He flew out of Las Vegas, which made it a shorter flight to Oakland, and took the mound sharp and rested Thursday in front of his cheering section at the Coliseum.

The lefty didn’t allow his first hit until the fifth inning, and then only because Candelario lost Seth Brown’s popup in the sun. It went for a double.

He left after six innings, having thrown 63 of his 92 pitches for strikes.

“That’s classic Skubal,” Tigers catcher said. “Throwing three different pitches for strikes, just absolutely dominating counts. Getting ahead of guys, getting guys uncomfortable. When he’s pitching his best, that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

It was the third consecutive encouraging outing for Skubal, 25, after a rough patch through much of June in which he lost five starts in a row. He’s won two of his past three, racking up 21 strikeouts with just three walks over 18 innings in that span.

Skubal (7-8) was excellent over his first 11 starts, going 5-2 with a 2.33 ERA. If he can recapture that form consistently, it will be a big lift for a Detroit rotation that’s currently without injured starters Casey Mize, , and, most recently, Beau Brieske, who landed on the 15-day injured list Thursday with right forearm soreness.

Skubal has felt right at home against the A’s in 2022. He threw seven scoreless innings against them at Comerica Park in May, but beating them Thursday at the Coliseum was special.

Skubal remembered how he used to marvel at Zito, who won the 2002 American League Cy Young Award while with the A’s.

“I would love to have that curveball,” he said. “I just remember watching Zito pitch and his curveball would go out of the frame and then come back in on TV. It was like, ‘If I can’t even see it, how’s the hitter gonna see it?’”

Skubal is doing just fine with his own stuff. He said regaining a feel for his slider has been crucial in recent starts. During his struggles in June, he felt the pitch was flattening out and acting more like a cutter.

“I was able to get it back to the movement I like,” Skubal said, “and I think that’s why my results have been a little bit different than prior.”