'He's very tough': Skubal impresses vs. Twins

July 9th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- The last time lost a game, simply getting to the All-Star break in the Tigers rotation wasn’t guaranteed. He was among the league leaders in losses and home runs allowed, and he was struggling to pitch deep into games. That was a May 25 loss to Cleveland, which left Skubal at 1-7.

As he walked off the Target Field mound Thursday night with the game tied, an early lead and dominant outing gone, he had plenty of things he could lament. His recent pitching wasn’t one of them.

“I consider him one of the best young starting pitchers in baseball,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said after his club handed the Tigers a 5-3 loss. “He’s very tough. We’re going to see a lot of him going forward.”

Not only has Skubal earned his rotation spot going into the second half, he earned a measure of trust from manager A.J. Hinch going into the seventh inning in a 3-2 game. He had made Twins hitters seem like bystanders for 4 1/3 perfect innings before Ryan Jeffers’ fifth-inning homer, and his sixth-inning damage consisted of a Jorge Polanco bunt single, Josh Donaldson walk and a Trevor Larnach grounder down the third-base line past a diving Jeimer Candelario.

As Miguel Sano loomed leading off the seventh, Hinch had his guy out there, much like the progression fellow rookie starter Casey Mize made a month or so ago. With six quality innings and 85 pitches, this was Skubal’s game.

“He had plenty left in him,” Hinch said. “He was so efficient. He had one inning where he was over 20 pitches. Obviously, he’s our guy and has been incredible for us, and I had a ton of confidence in him.”

Though Skubal took the loss, the Tigers’ downfall arguably had more to do with the defense behind him, including an early step off the bag by Willi Castro that denied a force out at second, and the offense missing opportunities to add on. Detroit loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth against Twins starter J.A. Happ and got a lone run out of it, on a bases-loaded walk to Zack Short.

“It has not been our norm, but you’re reminded quickly that if you don’t execute in this game, it can hurt you,” Hinch said.

The confidence is building in Skubal as well. He still has early hooks in his near future this season, but they’re more likely to watch his innings than his results.

“I felt good,” Skubal said, “and I still feel good coming out of it. The adrenaline’s worn off and my body feels really good. Getting through the first half of the season completely healthy and feeling strong, I like where I’m at.”

Skubal worked so quickly, so easily through the Twins order for four innings, the Target Field sound crew barely had time to play sound effects between his pitches. Skubal was ready for his next pitch almost as soon as he would get a ball back from catcher Jake Rogers. Before the Twins could look, Skubal had worked through their lineup over three perfect innings in 34 pitches, including eight swings and misses and four strikeouts. The only two balls in play with exit velocities over 88 miles an hour were groundouts to Short at shortstop.

Eric Haase’s two-run homer in the top of the fourth and sliding catch on Nelson Cruz’s line drive in the bottom of the inning supported Skubal on what looked like a dominant night.

Jeffers’ line drive over the left-field seats on Skubal’s 3-2 fastball -- his first three-ball count of the night -- broke up any perfect-game dreams, but Minnesota still struggled to mount any consistent offense. Skubal’s fastball sat at 94-95 mph and topped out at 96, while his slider induced six swings and misses.

“He’s a young guy with a really good fastball,” Jeffers said. “He’s kind of worked on his offspeed a little bit more, he’s throwing a slow change to righties and using a slider to lefties.”

Minnesota's hardest-hit ball of the sixth inning again came from Jeffers, whose fly ball took center fielder Niko Goodrum to the warning track for a 392-foot out.

Two pitches into the seventh, Sano’s drive to right-center tied the game. Max Kepler’s infield single put the winning run on base ahead of Castro’s error. Just three of the five runs off Skubal were earned, sending him into the All-Star break with a 4.36 ERA and a 5-8 record.

“I think my misses just became too middle,” Skubal said. “And I was also working behind guys in the fifth inning, sixth inning, beginning of the seventh. Just not getting ahead and getting guys into the counts early in the game.”