Tarik Skubal gives his old college team, and maybe himself, a pep talk

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Seattle – You don’t immediately think “motivational speaker” when you see Tarik Skubal. He’s typically very intense and serious, but mostly he’s quiet. He prefers to speak with deeds and not words.

Which is why it was intriguing to think of him Tuesday, back on his old college baseball field, giving a pep talk to the Seattle University baseball team as they prepare for a critical series this weekend.

Manager AJ Hinch and Tarik Skubal (29) of the Detroit Tigers watch batting practice before the game against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on May 17, 2021 in Seattle.

“You have to ask those guys, but I thought I killed it,” Skubal said, smiling. “But who knows?"

Skubal, who pitched and studied at Seattle U from 2015-2018, will pitch in front of 30 or so former teammates, coaches and friends tomorrow in the series finale, on the field he used to scrimmage on during college.

“It’s like my second home,” said Skubal, whose home state is Arizona. “It’ll be fun to see a lot of familiar faces in the crowd. Like in Oakland, when I got to throw in front of my family for the first time in a while, that was really cool and this is going to be another one of those moments.”

They are calling it T-Mobile Park these days, but it’s still Safeco to Skubal.

“I would come to as many games as I could afford at that time,” Skubal said. “This wasn’t the cheapest university. We came and scrimmaged here when we were in college. It was the first time they had those LED lights. It felt at the time very, very cool. And to be back, it’s kind of surreal.

“It’s cool to think about how I was thinking mentally as a freshman in college to now.”

The dreams are bigger, certainly. So are the expectations — his especially. And being 0-6 with a 5.73 ERA in his first full season in the big leagues isn’t what he had in mind.

“Just trying to establish my rhythm down the mound and execute pitches at a better rate,” he said. “That’s kind of everything I need to do. Get my rhythm and tempo down and execute pitches and work pitch by pitch and let everything take care of itself.”

Skubal, who pitched and studied at Seattle U from 2015-2018, will pitch in front of 30 or so former teammates, coaches and friends tomorrow in the series finale Wednesday.

He’s already made one major adjustment. He’s scrapped the splitter he added this off-season and gone back to a more traditional circle-grip change-up. The impact of that has been encouraging. Not only is he getting better results with the off-speed, but his fastball has ticked back up over 95 mph.

Still, though, he’s leaving too many balls in the middle of the plate and hitters aren’t missing. He’s given up 11 homers in 33 innings.

“For me, it’s getting ahead of guys and getting hitters in my counts,” he said. “I don’t have to be perfect with my command. I don’t have to live on the black (edge of the plate). I just need to compete in the zone and get in favorable counts.”

Given everything Skubal has been through already in his young career, especially through six starts this year, maybe his message to his alma mater Tuesday did resonate.

“Their record is 13-30, so it’s not like they’ve had a great year,” Skubal said. “I just told them, the awesome thing about it is, it doesn’t matter anymore. They still have a chance to make the playoffs. So the only thing that matters is these next four games.

“If they didn’t have the season they wanted to or they were struggling, just trust these last two years of practice. Trust the preparation and compete pitch by pitch.”

Just as Seattle can salvage a 13-30 season, Skubal can jump start his rookie season with a strong performance Wednesday. 

Willi Castro

A 48-hour break

A couple things have conspired to keep Willi Castro on the bench in the first two games of this series. One has been his own struggles, both at the plate and in the field. The other was Eric Haase.

“Giving Willi a couple of days off here was accelerated with Haase hitting two home runs last night,” manager AJ Hinch said before the game Tuesday. “The DH spot shifted to Wilson Ramos (with Haase catching). We put Miggy (Cabrera) back at first and Jonathan Schoop back at second.”

Schoop turned a pair of double plays, made a sensational diving play to steal a hit and blasted a two-run homer Monday night. When you have struggled to score runs like the Tigers, you ride whatever hot hand you can find.

But there is a developmental aspect to Castro being dry-docked for a bit, too.

“It’s not a bad 48 hours for him to decompress and get some work in,” Hinch said. “He’s fine. He’s upbeat. He doesn’t need any mental therapy. He’ll be playing second base (Wednesday).”

Castro, even with a three-game hitting streak going, is hitting .216 in May with 17 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances. The offensive struggles coupled with the defensive issues that have persisted are making it difficult to justify every day playing time for Castro.

“We’ll see how it is moving forward,” Hinch said. “You get somebody swinging the bat good and somebody is going to lose out on some playing time. This series it’s been Willi. It can be somebody different in Kansas City.

“But I think it’s a win-win for us in the sense that guys are playing well and Willi is getting a mental blow and can come out with a lot of energy tomorrow.”

Detroit Tigers' Eric Haase (13) is greeted at the dugout by Jake Rogers (34) after Haase hit a solo home run, his second of the game, during the ninth inning en route to the Tigers' 4-1 win Monday.

Around the horn

Both of Haase’s homers Monday traveled 429 feet, one to the seats in right center and the other to the seats in left center. Not many rookie have accumulated that much home run mileage in one game. Here’s the short list of rookies who hit two homers in a game that traveled at least 429 feet: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ( May 14, 2019), Brandon Lowe (June 9, 2019), Hunter Renfroe (June 6, 2017) and now Haase.

… Rookie Casey Mize pitched into the eighth inning for the first time in his career Monday, allowing just three hits in 7.2 innings. Here’s the list of Tigers rookies to ever do that: Michael Fulmer (May 27, 2016 and June 1, 2016), Justin Verlander (June 28, 2006) and Nate Robertson (May 9, 2004).

Twitter @cmccosky

Tigers at Mariners

►First pitch: 10:10 p.m.

►TV/radio: BSD, 97.1

Scouting report

►RHP Logan Gilbert (0-1, 9.00), Mariners: Another first-round pick from the 2018 (Casey Mize) draft class, Gilbert was the Mariners’ No. 4 prospect when he debuted five days ago. He features a four-seam fastball (94-95 mph) and slow slider (81.5). He also mixes in a curveball.

►LHP Tarik Skubal (0-6, 5.73), Tigers: Still waiting for him to have a breakout outing. His last two starts have been encouraging, but the home run ball continues to vex him. He’s allowed 11 homers, most in the American League. On the positive side, though, he’s responded well to traffic. He’s limiting opponents to a .194 average with runners in scoring position.

—Chris McCosky