A pair of Detroit Tigers rookie pitchers grinned between the sixth and seventh innings. Bench coach Lloyd McClendon, filling the role of manager after Ron Gardenhire left with a stomach virus, finally began his descent from goosebumps and sweaty palms.
Right-hander Casey Mize knew it. McClendon knew it. And the Minnesota Twins definitely had a new understanding.
Tarik Skubal belongs.
The hard-throwing lefty was dominant through six innings in his second consecutive start against the Twins, this time firing six strikeouts while only giving up one run on two hits and two walks. The bullpen squandered his second MLB win in the late innings — unable to protect a two-run lead — but no one questioned Skubal’s execution.
His fourth career big-league start confirmed what his dominant 2019 in the minors suggested.
“You can see it in his tempo,” McClendon said Saturday. “You can see it in his mannerisms. He’s throwing the ball a lot better.”
His performance Saturday began with a pregame conversation in the bullpen. Catcher Austin Romine — in his ninth MLB season — noticed Skubal wasn’t throwing aggressively, and that needed to change.
“Hey, man, just come to me, like throw through me,” Romine told him. “Attack through the glove.”
“Yeah, you know what, I need to do that,” Skubal responded. “I’m getting a little tentative right now.”
Attack he did, as the 6-foot-3 left-hander recorded nine consecutive outs to open the game, including strikeouts of Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Ryan Jeffers. Sano’s whiff came on an 85.8 mph changeup, a pitch Skubal went to for 18% of his career-high 78 pitches.
This is surprising, considering Skubal changed the entire grip of his changeup since his previous start against the Twins, on Aug. 29. He confided in fellow left-hander Matthew Boyd, who has found success with his increased use of the changeup, for advice.
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“I flipped the seams a little bit, started working off a different seam so my fingers could catch something and I could really drive it down and get the sink and fade that I wanted,” Skubal said. “The grip that I was throwing, I just felt like I was backspinning it too much. I was getting velocity difference, but I wasn’t getting any fade to it, so it turned into just a BP fastball. And the results were BP fastballs, they were hitting it really hard.”
He didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning when Twins rookie Brent Rooker drove a single to right field with nobody out. First baseman Miguel Sano followed with a single of his own to put runners on the corners.
A slow slider got Eddie Rosario to tap the ball back to Skubal, who immediately tossed the ball to shortstop Willi Castro at second base to begin a 1-6-3 double play. If Skubal had glanced toward third, he might have thrown out pinch-runner Jake Cave, who scored to tie the game at one apiece.
But he didn’t even look — a wise move from a 23-year-old. He struck out Buxton on three straight pitches to end the inning.
“We’re up one there, Buxton’s on deck,” said Skubal, who gave a frustrated look after allowing the run. “He’s really fast, so the odds of (a) punch-out and (then) a double play are very low. I was just a little upset about giving up back-to-back hits. I don’t really know what I was thinking, honestly. Always get two outs.”
Despite Skubal’s success, the loss dropped the Tigers to 17-20 with 23 games remaining this season. Their four-game losing streak seemingly puts a playoff berth further out of reach.
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Still, Detroit gets another chance to get back on track at 2:10 p.m. Sunday at Target Field as Mize, a 23-year-old rookie looking for his first signature start, takes the mound.
Just like Skubal.
“I really support what he’s doing and try to help him in any way I can,” Skubal said. “And, you know, I’m excited to watch him go out there tomorrow. He’s incredibly talented.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Detroit Tigers’ Tarik Skubal completely transformed his changeup