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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

An ace in the shadows? Not after a career day.



Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Tarik Skubal (twitter.com)

By Tyler Kepner / The Athletic


The last pitch sizzled through the raindrops at 99 mph, a swinging third strike at the top of the zone to end the sixth inning on Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Tarik Skubal spun on the mound, flexing and roaring, a primal reaction aimed at the big man looming behind him: Aaron Judge.


“I told him he’s a really good baseball player,” Skubal said later, in the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse, after a 5-2 loss in eight innings in the Bronx. “That’s what I said, because he hit the ball really, really hard. I threw the same pitch to him twice, thinking he wouldn’t do the same thing with it. And he did the same thing with it — twice.”


Between Judge’s homer in the first and double in the sixth — both on 97 mph fastballs near the knees — Skubal struck him out on three pitches in the third: a fastball for a checked-swing foul, a surprise curveball for another foul and high heat for a checked-swing miss. He ended his day with three strikeouts to strand Judge at second.


On a miserable day — “It was the worst,” Juan Soto said — Skubal did his best to stay dry. He blew on his hand and wiped it on his pants leg. He got a mid-inning rosin-bag replacement. He slipped into fresh jerseys between innings. He mostly gave up on his slider; the ball was too slick, he said, to wrap his fingers over the front and spin it.


Yet Skubal set a career high with 12 strikeouts and became the first Tiger in this decade to fan 12 without a walk. He mostly silenced the New York Yankees after their early 2-0 lead, retiring 13 of the last 15 hitters, 10 by strikeout.


“He’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” Judge said. “A guy like that that’s got plus velocity, plus-plus stuff, plus feel for all his stuff, can throw any pitch at any time, it’s really just about trying to get a pitch over the heart of the plate you can do damage on.”


That’s a lot of pluses for Skubal, who was matched Sunday by the Yankees’ Nestor Cortes but who has few peers across the majors. Skubal is 4-0 with a 1.90 ERA. His 53 strikeouts were tied for the American League lead with Garrett Crochet of the Chicago White Sox.


Skubal may have been a stealth Cy Young Award pick at the start of the season, but the secret is out. He’s a must-watch ace, even if he does not court the attention.


“I don’t really care, to be honest,” Skubal said. “I think that’s the media’s job to kind of label tags on guys. I don’t think it really matters, though. I just want to put our team in a position to win every time I get the ball. That’s what I think about.”


The news media was not exactly fixated on the Tigers last July 4, when Skubal returned after an 11-month absence for flexor tendon surgery. The team was far under .500, headed for its seventh losing season in a row.


Skubal, though, was a revelation down the stretch. From the date of his return through the end of the regular season, he led all pitchers in FanGraphs’ calculation of Wins Above Replacement (3.3), with 0.89 walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) and 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings. In 22 starts across the last two seasons, he is 11-3 with a 2.49 ERA.


A ninth-round draft choice from Seattle University in 2018, Skubal, 27, has helped Detroit to a winning record this season even after a weekend sweep in the Bronx. His development has been a triumph for an organization trying to build around pitching.


“I remember facing him in 2020 at the alternate site — I think he struck out nine in a row, and the next day he got the call-up to the big leagues,” left fielder Riley Greene said. “I feel like he’s just fine-tuning it every single day. It’s always been electric stuff, but I feel like it gets better and better each time he gets on the mound.”


How’s this for better and better? In his rookie season, Skubal finished with an ERA starting with a 5. The next season it started with a 4, then a 3, then a 2 and now a 1. Reliever Shelby Miller, a 12-year veteran, called Skubal one of the best competitors he has seen.


“Confidence,” Miller said. “It’s pretty easy to be confident with his kind of stuff, but it’s just the way he carries himself, one of the leaders on this team. You know those guys who know they’re good and live up to the hype, and Skub’s been doing that this year.


“Last year he was pretty much unhittable the second half of the season, and I think he’s just kind of getting in his groove. Staying healthy for him is a huge thing, and he’s doing all the right things to make himself great.”


Skubal is 6 feet, 3 inches but seems bigger on the mound. He lifts his knee high in his delivery and juts his glove skyward as he uncoils and his health is reflected in his fastball.


The pitch averages about 97 mph, the hardest of Skubal’s career, and that makes his change-up more effective. He throws that pitch around 86 mph, with disappearing action down and away from a righty. Eight of Skubal’s strikeouts Sunday came on the change-up, all swinging.


“It’s developed as my career’s developed,” Skubal said. “It’s always gotten good results, but now I have the movement that I like, and it’s kind of showing in how confident I am in it. That’s what helps it out too, is the separation.”


Skubal used the change-up to finish Giancarlo Stanton in all three of their matchups Sunday. But every Judge encounter ended with the fastball, power versus power, a riveting spectacle in a soggy setting that pitcher and hitter both relished.


“I got him the first time, then he comes back and strikes me out, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ll remember that,’” Judge said. “It’s impressive, man. It’s fun competing against guys like that, especially the young ace of the team. I’m looking forward to more battles with him, that’s for sure.”

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