Looking to avoid the series sweep, the Detroit Tigers would not be denied on Thursday night. They had to come back twice in this game, but the offense had enough to win 10-7 on Thursday night.
Clearly, Tarik Skubal has one major challenge left to overcome: A penchant for giving up too many home runs. The Minnesota Twins illustrated the point right out of the gate as leadoff hitter Bryon Buxton crushed a fastball into the upper deck in left to open the bottom of the first and give the Twins a 1-0 lead. The rookie left-hander was looking to take one more good outing into the offseason, but this wasn’t an auspicious sign.
Fortunately it was a solo shot, and as Skubal has generally kept the bases pretty clean, the damage has generally been minimal overall. He settled in after the homer to set the next four Twins down in order, then issued a one-out walk to Miguel Sano in the second inning. No matter, as Skubal set the next two hitters down to end the frame.
His opposing number, Joe Ryan, looked true to form for two innings. The Tigers seemed to have real trouble picking up the ball out of his hand as Ryan froze them again and again with well located fastballs for strikes. Finally, after six quick outs, Niko Goodrum, a hitter who has swung through fastball after fastball all season long as a left-handed hitter, launched an 0-2 fastball over the wall in right field to tie things up.
Andrelton Simmons lead off the bottom of the third with a grounder back through the box for a single. Buxton grounded into a force out to shortstop, with Simmons out at second, but Jorge Polanco singled over Goodrum into left to put runners at first and second with one out and catcher Mitch Garver at the dish. Skubal got Garver to fly out to Baddoo in shallow center field, and the Tigers’ centerfielder got the ball in quickly enough to hold Buxton at second as Josh Donaldson came to the plate.
Unfortunately, Skubal grooved a sinker down the middle in a 2-2 count, and Donaldson hammered it out to left for a three-run shot. 4-1 Twins, and like his fellow rookie rotation-mate, Casey Mize, Skubal was primed to end a successful season on a bad note. Channel that anger into the offseason, Tarik.
Isaac Paredes struck out to start the fourth inning, but Jonathan Schoop followed with a double to left field. Jeimer Candelario came to the plate with an RBI opportunity, and a wild pitch from Ryan moved Schoop to third. Candelario eventually drew a walk, and Harold Castro reached out on a tailing changeup off the plate and flared it into the left field corner for an RBI double. That brought up Goodrum again, and the Tigers’ shortstop worked his way into a 2-1 count and then destroyed another fastball 432 feet into the right field seats. The Tigers had seized a 5-4 lead.
Niko's homer of the game goes to the deck! pic.twitter.com/NIspWrlp8F— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) October 1, 2021
However, as previously noted, this is Target Field, so in the bottom half, after a sharp lineout from Miguel Sano, Brent Rooker took another Skubal fastball right down the middle and bombed it just over the wall in dead center field to tie things up. Luis Arraez followed with a double to right, and Skubal’s night, and season, came to an ugly end. Drew Hutchison came on and finished the frame with no trouble.
Everything keeping Skubal from being a front line starter is encapsulated in the following tweet. He’s either absolutely dominating, or he’s getting bombed on. There’s been little in between. Hopefully he can tighten up the command next season and take the next step into becoming a frontline starter. All in all it was a successful year that still leaves much room for improvement.
Twenty-two of Skubal's 35 HR allowed this season came on four-seam fastballs— Cody Stavenhagen (@CodyStavenhagen) October 1, 2021
In the top of the fifth, Akil Baddoo got ahead 3-0, and then showed bunt late on the fourth offering from Ryan. Whether it threw him off or not, Ryan’s next fastball went wide and Baddoo had a walk. He promptly stole second base, but Robbie Grossman flew out, and Isaac Paredes grounded out, moving Baddoo to third. Jonathan Schoop got down 0-2, but rifled a line drive right through Andrelton Simmons at shortstop. Baddoo scored, Schoop was on first with two outs, and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli turned to his bullpen to bring in reliever Nick Vincent. Candelario lined out to Rooker in left field, but the Tigers had another one run lead.
Hutchison pitched a clean fifth, but the Tigers couldn’t get anything done in the top of the sixth and it quickly cost them the lead. Hutchison allowed a leadoff single from Max Kepler in the bottom half, and he moved to third on a pair of deep fly balls to right from Sano and Rooker. A.J. Hinch turned to Kyle Funkhouser at that point, but Arraez lined a single to right to score Kepler and tie the game.
The Twins turned to Jorge Alcala in the top of the seventh, and he went through the top of the Tigers’ order 1-2-3. That set the stage for Byron Buxton, who greeted Funkhouser with his second home run of the game, a deep drive to straightaway center field that make it 7-6 Twins. Funk struck out Jorge Polanco, but then walked Garver on four straight pitches. Josh Donaldson gave him a tough battle, but eventually swung over a nasty slider for the second out of the inning. Funkhouser then got Kepler down 1-2 but threw three straight balls to walk him as well, and that was enough for Hinch, who went to Alex Lange to get the final out of the inning and keep this a winnable game.
Lange dialed up three consecutive nasty changeups, to a same-handed hitter in Miguel Sano, and dusted him to escape the jam. That was pretty impressive...
Also impressive is the ongoing resilience of this ball club. After fighting back to take the lead, only to lose it again, they came right back at the Twins in the top of the eighth. Ralph Garza walked Schoop and Candelario to start the inning, then gave up an RBI double to Harold Castro that tied the game up again. Baldelli called on lefty Caleb Thielbar to turn Goodrum around to the right side at that point.
Thielbar got Goodrum to ground out to shortstop, bringing up Dustin Garneau. Thielbar got ahead 0-2, but Garneau laid off three in a row to work the count back to even. He got a fastball he could handle and drove it out to Buxton in center field, Candelario tagged and scored from third to put the Tigers up 8-7, and Harold Castro advanced to third just ahead of the throw. Willi Castro followed by slapping a grounder right under Sano’s glove at first, scoring Harold, and the Tigers had a two run lead. Akil Baddoo was the final batter of the frame and flew out to right field to end the rally.
Alex Lange took the bottom of the eighth and worked a 1-2-3 frame with a strikeout. Michael Fulmer was warming in the pen, and the Tigers looked for a little more insurance as Robbie Grossman started things off in the ninth. He struck out, and Paredes popped out to shortstop, leaving things up to Jonathan Schoop, who was up to the task. He turned on the first pitch he saw from Kyle Barraclough and drilled it down the line in left just fair for a solo home run, his 22nd on the year.
That left the game in the right hand of Michael Fulmer with a 10-7 lead but facing the heart of the Twins’ order. It didn’t start well as Byron Buxton started things off with a double up the left-center field gap. Fulmer then fell behind Jorge Polanco, but fought back and eventually got him swinging over a nasty slider down and away just out of the zone for the strikeout. Garver flew out to Grossman in right field, allowing Buxton to advance to third.
Fulmer fell behind Donaldson 2-0, but came back with a good slider at 93 mph to get back in the count. He got a bit of help on a fastball off the outer edge to even the count, and then broke off a nasty looking curveball down that Donaldson did well to lay off. Fulmer dialed up a 97 mph fastball up and just missed, issuing the walk and bringing Max Kepler at the plate as the potential game-tying run, and friends were weren’t loving it.
Donaldson took second on defensive indifference while Fulmer missed with his first three pitches to Kepler. He came back with fastballs, got to a full count, and eventually Kepler lifted a routine fly ball to left field. Willi Castro squeezed it, and the Tigers were back in the win column.
If I took two things away from this one against the Twins, it’s the fact that Alex Lange has gotten very interesting indeed and could play a big role in the bullpen next season, and that while a lot of teams around the league seemed to be gassed, the 2021 Detroit Tigers continue to impress with their resilience.