'Insane where this kid has come from': Tarik Skubal's journey to become Detroit Tigers ace

PHOENIX — His high school had a graduating class of 65 and no baseball field. They were relegated to playing games in a city park with no locker room, an all-dirt infield and a sandy pitching mound.

Today, the big left-handed kid with the bad foot and the unique name, from the dusty town of Kingman Ariz., just so happens to be one of the finest starting pitchers in the American League.

The name is Tarik Skubal (pronounced TARE-ick SKOO-bull).

Skubal, who pitched for tiny Kingman Academy, was ignored by every four-year university in the country except one. He was overlooked in the Major League Baseball draft for 254 picks. He was selected sight unseen on the recommendation of an agent.

The Detroit Tigers' homegrown ace is a candidate to be the team's first Cy Young winner since Justin Verlander.

Skubal is 6-1 with a 2.25 ERA and a league-best 0.85 WHIP this season, dazzling with his 96.6-mph four-seam fastball and disappearing changeup. Why, until losing his last start Wednesday against Kansas City, he was 10-0 with a 1.48 ERA in his previous 14 starts, striking out 109 batters and walking just 12 in 85 innings dating back to last season.

“It’s insane where this kid has come from," says Bill McCord, who coached Skubal from when he was 10 through high school, with his son, Westin, as Skubal’s catcher. “To go where he has come from, a small town where our pitching mound was powder at Southside Park, to where he is today, what a distance he has traveled.

“It’s such an uplifting story."

Skubal is the most famous athlete to ever come out of Kingman, a town off Route 66 on Arizona’s Western edge, where folks usually only stop for gas on their way to Las Vegas. It's 73 miles from the Grand Canyon, 107 miles from Las Vegas, 195 miles from Phoenix and 319 miles from Los Angeles.

“I’ve never been there," says David Chadd, the former assistant Tigers GM who was responsible for the organization drafting him in the ninth round, “and I don’t think I ever will."

Says Elliott Cribby, who recruited Skubal to Seattle University: “We always used to meet at the In-N-Out Burger there. I think about Tarik that every time I see an In-N-Out, but no, I’ve never been back.

Scott Boras, Skubal’s agent: “I think I stopped there for gas once on a family trip to Vegas, but that’s about it."

The townsfolk will tell you their most famous citizen was Andy Devine, the late actor who played the sidekick to Roy Rogers in the old Western films. They renamed the main street in downtown after him. Their claim to fame is being in the heart of Route 66. They have have a Route 66 museum in town.

Now, Kingman is known as the home of Skubal.

The hometown fans – including just about everyone from his graduating class – traveled three hours last weekend to see Skubal pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Skubal, one of the several Tigers who contracted a nasty virus that sent teammate Kenta Maeda to the injured list days earlier, didn’t even know whether he’d be even able to pitch. He warmed up in the bullpen and felt awful. When he took the mound, he told Tigers manager A.J. Hinch that he didn’t know how long he’d last.

Skubal, 27, went out and gave up one hit in six shutout innings without even telling any of his teammates just how lousy he felt. Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said It was the best pitching performance he'd seen all season.

“That’s him," says Tigers catcher Jake Rogers. “He’s a bulldog. He’s got that 'F-you' mentality. I didn’t even know about the virus because he’s never one to use excuses."

Says Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson: “He’s the ultimate competitor. He’s got that mindset like, 'My stuff beats your stuff, no matter what.’ I don’t care if it’s doing crossword puzzles or playing ping-pong, the guy wants to beat you."

So, why would anyone think he’d ever bemoan his fate, overcoming Tommy John surgery that robbed him of two years in college, and flexor tendon surgery that sidelined him for a year in the big leagues?

“The way I look at it," Skubal tells USA TODAY Sports, “is that everything happens for a reason. If not for those injuries, I don’t know if I’m pitching like this.

“I’ve had to work for everything I’ve gotten. Nothing was given to me.’’

Skubal, a pudgy 6-foot-3 left-hander who threw in the 80’s in high school, was ignored by every school in the state of Arizona but Yavapai College, a community college in Prescott. He wanted to go to Brigham Young University, but they had no interest in him. No one from Arizona State, Arizona or Grand Canyon University bothered to drive up to see him.

It wasn’t until Cribby, a first-year pitching coach at Seattle University desperate for pitching help, saw him pitch at the Arizona Fall Classic showcase in Peoria, Ariz., dropped him a business card and asked him to call.

Skubal had no interest in going all the way to Washington, but finally was convinced by his dad, Phil, to check it out. They showed up together at the campus where he threw in front of Cribby and head coach Donny Harrel.

The trouble was that when Skubal showed up, he thought the school would have baseball cleats for him. They didn’t. So his dad ran over to the local Target, purchased K-Swiss white tennis shoes, size 14 and 15 with his left foot bigger than the other, and Skubal impressed them enough to receive a quarter-scholarship with financial aid.

“I’ll never, ever forget that," says Cribby, now the associate head coach at Central Washington University. “The guy’s work ethic his entire time there was insane. He wasn’t going to let anything stop him.’’

Four years and a Tommy John surgery later, it’s the second day of draft. Skubal still isn’t drafted, and his agent, Scott Boras, telephones Tigers assistant GM David Chadd.

Boras tells Chadd that his agency’s vice president, former big-league pitcher Scott Chiamparino, believes Skubal could be a star in the making. And Skubal would be willing to sign for cheap, a $350,000 bonus.

Chadd had never seen him Skubal pitch. Barely anyone else in the Tigers’ organization had. Skubal won a school-record 21 games and ranked second in school history with 224 career strikeouts, but once he underwent Tommy John surgery his junior year, he was forgotten.

“We saw him maybe five innings," said Chadd, now a special assistant with the Philadelphia Phillies. “We knew he was a big, left-hander, threw hard, and came highly regarded from Scott.

“So, we took a chance."

The Tigers drafted him in the ninth round, the 255th overall pick, and hit the lottery.

Skubal didn’t come with the hype and promise of Casey Mize, the first overall pick in that 2018 draft. He wasn’t the ninth overall pick as a high-school kid in 2016 like Tigers starter Matt Manning. But once they were all together, it was like having three potential aces.

“When you saw Skubal come up with Mize and Manning," said Chadd, “you didn’t know who was going to be the most dominant. They all just pushed each other. But right after we got Skubal, seeing the size, the velocity and the competitor all rolled into one, we knew right away we had someone special."

While Skubal has emerged into one of the finest young left-handers in the game, he’s still the same big ol’ goofy kid from Kingman, the son of a school teacher and a mom who raised five boys. He’s looking for a place to live after just selling his modest home in Chandler, Ariz., remodeling the house himself, ripping up floor tiles and installing the drywall with his own hands.

He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Jessica, with a 7-month-old son (Kasen) and two dogs, but will never, ever, forget his roots. He participates in local fundraisers for Kingman, keeps in touch with the local baseball and softball players and visits his former teachers when he stops into town.

“I’m proud to be from Kingman," Skubal says. “It was such a great place to grow up. I’ve got such great friends there, and the support from family and friends motives me to be as good as I can be. You learn the value of hard work and you don’t take anything for granted.

“I don’t necessarily have a chip on my shoulder, but the motivation for me is to work my ass off and then whatever happens, happens. You can live with that at the end of the day, knowing you did everything possible."

When Skubal pitches, particularly those day games when Detroit is a three-hour time difference ahead of Arizona, everyone in town is watching the Tigers game.

“Anyone and everyone is watching in town," McCord says. “He’s a hero here."

As for Skubal's fierce competitiveness, when you're one of five boys in the house and your dad is a basketball coach, you’ve got to prove you can hang with them.

“They didn’t let me win anything," says Skubal, who may have played collegiate basketball if not for baseball. “There were no handouts. I joke about this, but we had five boys in the family. They’re all hungry. So at dinner, you better be the first one to eat or there’ll be no seconds.

“Our house was like a locker room. We competed with each other on everything."

When Skubal showed up on campus at Seattle University, it didn’t take long for Harrel and everyone else to realize they had something.

“You saw there was this desire to be great, and by the time his freshman year ended, the progress he made was really, really impressive," Harrel says. “By his sophomore year, everyone knew he was going to be special. You saw that boil, that competitive fire. He loved that competition from the academic side to community service to the ballfield.

“There’s nothing that he doesn’t compete in.

“I don’t think he even lets his wife win a game of checkers."

These days, he doesn’t let any major-league team beat him either. Why, until last week in Kansas City, the last time he lost a game was Aug. 29, 2023.

“He’s become dominant early-count, mid-count and late-count with so many pitches," Hinch says. “The stuff is incredible. He’s high in velocity, he’s got a plus-plus changeup, he can spin the ball. The only thing that was holding him back as a young player was staying in the strike zone. Thing clicked for him with his delivery, and he's taken off because he dominates the strike zone.’’

Oh, and about that competitiveness?

“His start reminds me a lot of the high-end pitchers that I’ve had," says Hinch, who managed Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Dallas Keuchel in Houston. “He’s approachable, but he’s intense. He thrives in the competition because it matters to him. It’s him vs. the hitter, which is a little bit old-school in how much he puts into that.

“He’s got no fear. And he has a great appreciation of the work it took, and the adversity he overcame to get here."

Skubal, always striving for perfection, says he watches stars like Verlander, Cole and Max Scherzer as much as possible. He loved watching Barry Zito and his masterful curveball growing up.

He pitches with that same confidence as his heroes. He’s earned everything through hard work and he wants to make everyone who helped him along the way proud.

“He has this unselfishness and the drive to not only have success for himself," Harrel says, “but that drive to take care of his family with the gift he has. He’s just so genuine.’’

Says Cribby: “He knows where he comes from. He’s proud of where he comes from. You’re never going to see him change.

“He’s Tarik Skubal."

Remember the name.

Around the basepaths

– Morgan Sword, MLB’s vice president, business operations, is among the leading candidates to become baseball’s next commissioner when Rob Manfred retires in January, 2029, several MLB owners privately say.

Sword, 39, who works primarily in baseball’s on-field matters, is highly respected by owners and executives throughout the game.

The other top candidates expected to be under serious consideration among owners are deputy commissioners Dan Halem and Noah Garden, and Chris Marinek, chief operations and strategy officer.

Theo Epstein, the future Hall of Fame executive who helped end the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs’ World Series droughts, has no interest in the job and still hopes to become an owner.

– Stay tuned for the potential fireworks on Monday when Craig Counsell returns home to Milwaukee for the first time since leaving the Brewers to manage the rival Chicago Cubs.

While the Brewers players have no trouble with Counsell’s departure and record five-year, $40 million contract, ownership remains furious, and so do the fans.

It will hardly be a hero’s welcome when his name is introduced over the loudspeakers before the first game of the series at American Family Field.

Juan Soto flips his bat after hitting a home run in the third inning against the Padres.
Juan Soto flips his bat after hitting a home run in the third inning against the Padres.

– MLB scouts have been impressed by Yankees right fielder Juan Soto’s vast defensive improvement and baserunning this season, saying he looks more like the player who came up in the Washington Nationals’ system and helped lead them to the 2019 World Series title.

Scott Boras, Soto’s agent, said that Soto moved to Florida during the offseason and worked out at a training facility with Gold Glove outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

– So just how many serious talks has Soto had about extensions and contracts with Boras in his six-year career?

“Fifty-four," Boras said. “That’s not easy listening to me talking for two hours."

– While MLB is tabling the automated ball-strike system next season, MLB officials privately expect it to be formally introduced in 2026 with a challenge system.

– The Chicago White Sox are resisting all temptation to trade center fielder Luis Robert Jr., who is scheduled to return in June after being sidelined two months.

Robert may be their best trade asset but he’s only 26 and is under team control through the 2027 season.

– With everyone is focused on Soto in free agency this winter and wondering just how much more than $500 million he’ll receive, all eyes will be on Astros All-Star right fielder Kyle Tucker in a year.

He’ll be a free agent after 2025, and he’s having another sensational season with a major-league leading 17 homers, 36 RBI and a 1.043 OPS. He and closer Josh Hader are hugely responsible for the Astros’ turnaround to get back in the AL West race.

Hader’s last 10 appearances: 13.1 innings, 4 hits, 1 earned run, 4 walks, 21 strikeouts, .091 batting average and .349 OPS.

– While Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is on an absolute tear, hitting .388 with 11 doubles, 12 homers and 24 RBI in his last 26 games entering Saturday, scouts and talent evaluators still worry about the toll it may be taking on Judge’s body playing every day in center field.

“You need him for seven months, not six months," one executive said, “and at some point fatigue is going to set in."

– The most puzzling contract of the winter was when the small-market Pittsburgh Pirates gave a one-year, $10.5 million contract to Aroldis Chapman when they already had an All-Star closer in David Bednar.

Now, it looks completely absurd.

Chapman, who tripled his salary of a year ago, is 0-3 with a 4.41 ERA, a hideous 1.837 WHIP and decreased velocity.

– The Boston Red Sox plan to trade All-Star veteran closer Kenley Jansen by the trade deadline. He’s earning $16 million this year and the Red Sox have no interest in bringing him back.

– Billye Aaron, the widow of the late Henry Aaron, was on hand for the unveiling of his statue Thursday at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“It just makes me proud," she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Not just because I was his wife, but it makes me proud that an African American man has accomplished this and has managed to get in a place where there aren’t many. When you see the statues here and across the country, you aren’t going to find that many of us at the ballparks."

– Teams are keeping a close eye on Colorado Rockies catcher Elias Diaz, who is having his career-best season, hitting .311 with four homers, 23 RBI and an .804 OPS. He’s a free agent after after the season.

– Remember when MLB moved the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta when Georgia passed restrictive voting laws?

Well, the laws remain in place, but the game still is returning to Atlanta next summer.

Why the change?

“I think that one of the things we’ve learned over time is that the more we stay out of political issues, the better off we are," commissioner Rob Manfred said in a press briefing Thursday. “People like their sports separate from their politics. We’ve got a fan base, it’s all over the political spectrum. And the safest thing for us to do is focus on baseball. It is difficult to make those judgments in a way that doesn’t offend part of your fan base.”

– Remember when Blake Snell gave up just 18 earned runs in his last 136 innings last season to win the NL Cy Young award?

This year, he has given up 19 earned runs in 15 innings.

He is 0-3 with an 11.40 ERA.

– Scouts are alarmed by Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez’s dramatic drop-off in power.

He’s hitting .252 this season with just two homers, five doubles, 14 RBI and a .606 OPS.

“He just doesn’t seem like the same guy," one veteran scout said. “I can’t see it lasting, but something’s not right."

– Meanwhile, Arizona Diamondbacks Rookie of the Year winner Corbin Carroll’s slump continues. He’s hitting .188 with two homers, 16 RBI and a .546 OPS, a dramatic drop-off from a year ago when he hit .285 with 25 homers, 76 RBI and an .868 OPS.

“He’s doing this upper-cut swing with this arc of all of a sudden, and striking out," said one scout who watched him for the past week. “He needs to go back to that flat swing. It’s hard for him to hit a line drive. That’s what got him to the big leagues in the first place."

– The 43 home runs hit by Judge, Soto and Giancarlo Stanton are more than the four entire teams.

“We’re just getting started," Stanton says.

– Just how good is two-time batting champion Luis Arraez, who’s hitting .397 with a .914 OPS since joining the Padres?

“He’s one of the best hitters I've ever seen play in the game of baseball," Padres right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr. said.

– Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker has become Public Enemy No. 1 at Dodger Stadium.

The dude has hit 14 homers in just 39 games in Chavez Ravine, averaging one homer every 8.9 at-bats. He has a .312/.368/.672 (1.040 OPS) slash line at Dodger Stadium.

“I don’t love that he's doing that against us," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says, “but I love how he plays the game. He plays it the right way."

Walker, by the way, is a free agent after the season.

– The Padres sure have dampened a whole lot of parties in the Gaslamp Quarter surrounding Petco Park this year.

They are 3-13 in night games at home this season, and 10-16 overall at Petco.

– Just when the San Francisco Giants looked dead, they stormed back to win nine of their last 12 games, including three consecutive games when trailing by at least four runs. They became the fourth team in history to accomplish the feat.

– Hey, don’t blame the Phillies for their soft schedule.

They’re simply playing the teams that MLB scheduled in the first two months, and obliterating everyone in their path.

They are off to their greatest start in franchise history, and became only the eighth team in the division era since 1969 to start a season 37-14. Their 29-6 run until Friday was their best 35-game stretch since 1892.

The Phillies, who haven’t played a team with a winning record since Atlanta on March 31, could play their next team with a winning record on Monday in San Francisco with the Giants sitting at .500 entering Saturday.

– The Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks were the Cinderella stories of last year’s World Series with their fabulous postseasons, with the Rangers winning their first title in franchise history.

This year?

The glass slippers have shattered.

The two injury-riddled teams entered Saturday with a combined 48-55 record.

– It’s crazy that Diamondbacks second baseman Ketel Marte had a 21-game hitting streak and his batting average plummeted from .309 to .270.

He produced just one hit in 18 of the 21 games during the streak.

“I don’t even know how that was possible,” teammate Corbin Carroll said.

– The biggest surprise in baseball these first two months has been the Cleveland Guardians’ offensive resurgence, which has led to a blistering 34-17 start.

They ranked 27th in runs scored and were last in home runs a year ago.

This year, they’ve scored the third-most runs in the American League with 58 homers, sixth in the league.

Jose Ramirez, of course, has been the catalyst with 14 homers, 49 RBI and a plaque awaiting him one day in Cooperstown.

– Former All-Star Lance Berkman resigned as baseball coach at Houston Christian after going just 47-104 in three years.

– Kudos to MLB for having the World Baseball Classic semifinals and finals once again in Miami.

It’s by far the greatest environment in this country for the event, averaging 31,684 fans a game during the 2023 WBC.

Games will also be played in Houston for the first time, along with Tokyo and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

– If the Oakland Athletics plan to open the season in Las Vegas in 2028, they must break ground by next April, MLB says.

– The Toronto Blue Jays are the team buyers are keeping their eye on at the trade deadline knowing they could move first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., shortstop Bo Bichette, DH Justin Turner, outfielders George Springer and Kevin Kiermaier, closer Jordan Romano and starters Yusei Kikuchi and Chris Bassitt.

– So, just what does Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor miss about no longer being with the Cleveland Guardians?

“Winning," he simply told reporters this week.

Lindor went to the postseason just once in his first three years with the Mets.

– The Dodgers offense may be awfully good, but they sure have trouble winning games by outslugging the opposition.

They are 0-13 when opponents have scored five or more runs.

– Just how historic is Phillies pitcher Ranger Suarez’s 9-0, 1.36 ERA start to the season?

He has the lowest ERA by a Phillies pitcher in the first 10 starts of a season since Grover Alexander in 1916.

He also is the first pitcher with a 9-0 record and sub-1.50 ERA in his first 10 starts since Hall of Famer Juan Marichal in 1966.

– Kudos to Atlanta first baseman Matt Olson, who has played more than 500 consecutive games, only the sixth player since 2000 to accomplish the feat.

– So much for the talk that the Mets could reach the postseason.

They have lost 21 of their last 30 games entering Saturday, and are 15 ½ games out of first place.

There are only two words to describe the rest of their season: Trade deadline.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tigers ace Tarik Skubal's rise from small town to Cy Young contender