DETROIT — Kyle Lobstein has been a near-miracle for the Tigers since Anibal Sanchez went on the disabled list six weeks ago. Monday's game was just Lobstein's sixth start at the major league level, but he gave the Tigers more than a start — he and Chris Bassitt became engaged in an unexpected pitcher's duel at Comerica Park.
It's interesting and frightening at the same time to think about where the Tigers would be without Lobstein. Since the Tigers called him up from the minors, the team had a 4–0 record with Lobstein on the mound until Monday, when they took their first loss because of a missing offense. The only runs allowed were the result of a hung pitch in the second inning that produced a two-run home run, then he demonstrated an ability to get back on track, shutting down the White Sox for the next five innings.
"That's what we were asking of him," Alex Avila said. "I think he pitched even better than what everybody's been expecting. He's got four pitches he can get you out with, he commands it, and he's been pitching very well for us."
Lobstein's fastball won't wow you. It rarely tops 90 mph, and he's still working on commanding the strike zone, but it's improving. The 25-year-old left-hander has a 3.38 ERA in five starts (six appearances) for the Tigers to go along with 23 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings.
The first two innings of Monday's outing weren't smooth for Lobstein. He acknowledged the early-inning difficulties were the result of rust, having had his start pushed back several days. Rather than allow the outing go into a tailspin though, Lobstein regrouped and finished strong with the longest start of his major league career, a solid seven innings.
The lefty still has much to learn but having pitching coach Jeff Jones and veteran catcher Avila has made a difference. Both have contributed to Lobstein's success on the mound, walking him through a level of the game he's still largely unfamiliar with. Much of that has to do with the statistics of opposing teams, but nerves have been a factor at times.
Jones has sat next to Lobstein between innings since his first outing. No one bothers the two and they don't always talk, but Jones has been there for guidance and moral support at every turn. Lobstein's relationship with Avila has allowed Lobstein to worry less about out-thinking the opposing team and trust Avila's signs, whether he's faced that team or not. That came into play once again Monday night, but this time he's also beginning to trust himself.
"Especially a team like Chicago, I haven't faced before, so most of the time, I'm going with what he's putting down," Lobstein said. "A couple of times, I'm shaking off, if I see something that's going on with the hitter. Most of the time, I'm going with what he likes. He knows these hitters better than me."
With less than a week to go before the end of the regular season, the Tigers are going to need Lobstein for one more start. He's currently scheduled to go against Ricky Nolasco and the Twins on Saturday. If the schedule remains unchanged, September 27 will be a culmination of a journey that began on August 23 when Lobstein pitched an unexpected 5 2/3 innings of relief in Minnesota.
It will be just the second time Lobstein's faced a team for the second time and he'll do so on normal rest. The last time he faced a team for the second time, four runs were given up and Lobstein lasted just five innings, but this time is likely to be different.
Lobstein has shown consistent improvement from one area to the next, as well as an ability to handle high-leverage games under pressure. Lobstein has given the Tigers an unexpected gift they were in desperate need of when they lost Sanchez. Lobstein has been more than a spot starter, he's been relief where originally there was none. Monday's game was just the latest example.