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'I never felt like that before:' Tigers prospect Skubal on mend after COVID battle

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh – Tigers pitching prospect Tarik Skubal was certainly aware of the coronavirus. He knew it was serious, serious enough to cancel spring training and send him back home to self-isolation in Arizona. He knew people were dying from it.

Still, he’s 23, in the best physical condition of his life. The last thing he felt was at risk.

“I didn’t know anyone who had it,” Skubal said Saturday morning on a Zoom video chat. “My friends and family, or their friends and family, it’s like, this is spreading but it doesn’t feel real. Then I got it. And yeah, it’s definitely real.”

Highly touted pitching prospect Tarik Skubal was a ninth-round selection in 2018.

About a week before Skubal was going to fly to Detroit and begin training camp at Comerica Park, he tested positive for COVID-19. To give you an idea of the ravages of this virus, Skubal on Saturday, more than a month since testing positive, threw his first intrasquad game in Toledo – just two innings.

“I had pretty much all of the symptoms,” he said. “It set me back physically from that point. I couldn’t do much. I was quarantined in the house for two weeks, following all the protocols I was told to follow. It was tough.

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“But I’m fine. I came out of it fine. I feel strong. It’s just about building back up. ... Just being cautious because physically it took a lot out of me.”

He said it took him two weeks to start feeling normal again. The fever was the worst.

“About the fourth day it really got scary,” he said. “The fever spiked to 103.7 degrees. It’s the hottest I ever felt in my entire life. It did get scary that night. But after that I was fine. It went down the next day and I was fine after the fever went away.

“But that was the worst night for me, with the fever being so high. I never felt like that before.”

All the while, the Tigers' No. 5 prospect was missing out on the chance to pitch to Major League hitters in a big-league stadium, that after he’d put himself in position for a possible call-up this season with a strong showing in Lakeland.

He didn't let himself go down that emotional road.

“It’s out of my control,” he said. “I tried to be careful through this whole thing. I didn’t go out much. I tried to stay away from everybody. Just tried to stay ready for baseball. It’s tough. But I try not to think about that stuff, just because it’s probably not healthy to think about that.”

Instead of dwelling on opportunities lost, he’d rather focus on the strides he made during the shutdown, before he contracted the virus.

“I think I took a big step forward,” he said. “Just being able to work on things. I had the time where it was just full-go, didn’t have to throw to hitters. It wasn’t like I was trying to get numbers or outs. I was able to work on some pitches, design some stuff and feel some stuff that I really like.”

Skubal, a 6-3 left-hander who features an upper 90s fastball and a knee-buckling slider, changed the grip on his curve ball in Lakeland and he worked to get comfortable with the bigger break, learning to pair it with his slider and change-up.

“I was able to get the pitch I wanted to create,” he said. “I was able to pitch over a Rapsodo machine to hitters and get feedback right away.”

Having to shut down for a month was tough physically, he said, but he doesn’t feel like he’s had to start from square one. Though, he admits, pitching to the same hitters over and over in batting practice and intrasquad games isn’t the same as actual live competition.

“I love competing and pitching against a lineup and hitters you aren’t as familiar with and who aren’t as familiar with you,” Skubal said. “I just keep trying to put myself in situations where it is game-like. Try to replicate the adrenaline and all that stuff and execute pitches.

“That’s where my focus has always been. It doesn’t really matter who’s in the box. It’s more about me executing pitches and doing what I need to do on the mound.”

Again, Skubal doesn’t want to waste his time or energy worrying about things he can’t control. Nothing good can come from that. 

“I’d love to be playing in a normal, minor-league season, but the world isn’t normal right now,” he said. “There are a lot of bigger problems, with the virus and everything else that’s going on. I’ll take what I can get. I’m playing baseball right now.

“I’m staying safe and trying to keep everyone else safe, as well.”

Twitter @cmccosky