In Tigers-Pirates doubleheader, Paul Skenes and Tarik Skubal put on pitching clinics

DETROIT — Tarik Skubal walked to a counter in the center of the Detroit Tigers clubhouse. He grabbed a blue pen and a copy of Wednesday’s crossword puzzle. He retreated straight to his locker chair stationed in front of a ping-pong table and got to work.

This has become his ritual, the superstition his start days now center around. He will not throw a pitch until the crossword is finished. If he encounters a roadblock, he enlists the help of catcher Jake Rogers.

Not long after sitting down, Skubal — the man who entered the day leading all pitchers in fWAR (5.3) and ERA (2.57) since July 4 of last season — was bantering with fellow pitcher Casey Mize about 6-across.

“I got through this one pretty good,” Skubal later said of the crossword. “Rog only had to help me on the bottom left.”

These days, puzzles have provided more of a challenge for Skubal than opposing hitters. Shortly after completing the crossword, Skubal was on the mound for the front end of a doubleheader. The second game was set to feature ballyhooed rookie Paul Skenes pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates on his 22nd birthday. The Pitching Ninja social channels were sure to have enough content for an entire week.

This was pitching at its best, two different arms with two very different stories. Skubal is a 27-year-old left-hander who was a ninth-round pick, who has already endured both Tommy John and flexor tendon surgery. Skenes is a right-hander who went No. 1 overall in last summer’s draft. For every 100 mph fastball and dazzling breaking ball, there’s a Hail Mary asking for his arm to hold up. Here they both were Wednesday at Comerica Park, a grand display of pitching filth.

Skubal started the show with flair. He powered in his fastball. He levitated his changeup to the plate and then sent it falling. He struck out the first two batters he faced. He missed six bats with his changeup and generated 15 whiffs overall. He threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of 25 batters on the day.

“His changeup was definitely (better than) anything we saw on video,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said afterward. “The depth that he had to it, if that’s not the best one he’s had all year, then I would be hard-pressed to see when he had a better one.”

After battling elevated pitch counts through four innings, Skubal recorded three outs on five pitches in the fifth. He needed only seven pitches in the sixth. When the day was done after seven scoreless innings, Skubal was at 93 pitches and hoping for more. Manager A.J. Hinch went to give Skubal a handshake after the seventh, and Skubal merely stuck out his glove and playfully bumped Hinch’s hand.

“I didn’t want a handshake,” he said.

This was an ace at work, a left-hander who has become the betting favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award. After his latest gem, Skubal is the first Tigers pitcher to post a 2.01 ERA or lower over his first 11 starts since Doyle Alexander in 1987.

“That may have been the best pitching performance we’ve seen so far this year,” Shelton said.

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Tigers pitcher Tarik Skubal throws a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second inning at Comerica Park. (Lon Horwedel / USA Today)

If anything could overshadow Skubal’s day, it was the threat looming on the other side in Skenes — the No. 1 overall pick who ripped through the minor leagues, who struck out 21 batters in his first 16 MLB innings and quickly became the talk of the league.

Earlier in the week, Tigers hitters acknowledged intrigue and respected Skenes’ talent. But they mostly talked about treating Skenes like any other challenge. Be on time for the fastball. Stick to the approach.

Then they faced him, and they saw for themselves what all the talk was about.

About 30 minutes after Shelton’s comments on Skubal, Skenes strode to the mound. The mustachioed flamethrower had two strikeouts in what felt like the blink of an eye. He sent Detroit leadoff hitter Wenceel Perez down on a 99.6 mph fastball, then punched out Riley Greene on a 94 mph splitter.

“He was throwing three pitches for strikes,” Greene said. “Some of his pitches fell off the table. They looked like strikes and they weren’t.”

For most of Skenes’ outing, it was more of the same. He threw his patented splinker — the split-finger that sits at 94 mph and darts down and in on right-handed hitters — 41 percent of the time. He induced 11 swinging strikes with the pitch and 19 overall. Four times he threw fastballs over 100 mph.

In the second inning, Detroit outfielder Mark Canha reached on a leadoff walk and scored the Tigers’ first run via an Akil Baddoo sacrifice fly. But Skenes went on to retire 13 of the next 14 hitters before hanging a slider to red-hot Tigers third baseman Matt Vierling, who crushed the pitch for a home run.

In his previous at-bat, Vierling battled Skenes for 10 pitches, seeing his entire arsenal before taking a splitter for strike three.

“It’s difficult,” Vierling said. “I felt like the best pitch I got to hit the whole at-bat was the one I took. It was almost like splitter down, two-seam away, splitter away. Everything was on the corners.”

Skenes went six innings, allowing two earned runs on three hits and a walk, striking out nine and earning the win in his latest stellar effort. Through four MLB starts, Skenes has a 2.45 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 22 innings.

“His split was really good,” Hinch said. “Any time he went to it — whatever he calls it, the new name — it’s really effective and impactful to both sides of the hitter. He could go get chase with it. He could go get swing and miss. So we had a hard time with the overall package. He’s a talented kid.”

Backed by Skubal, the Tigers won Game 1, 8-0. Backed by Skenes, the Pirates won the second game, 10-2.

Here were two modern power pitchers, one a rookie seemingly bound for greatness and the other a budding star. Both were stellar.

Opposing hitters may be trying, and largely failing, to solve them all season long.

(Top photo of Paul Skenes: Lon Horwedel / USA Today)

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