Two Bay Area players help brighten Detroit Tigers’ future

Detroit Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal is quickly establishing himself as one of the more impressive and dominant young pitchers in the American League.

A few folks in the East Bay, however, remember Skubal as an even more unstoppable force. Of course, that was 20 years ago, when Skubal was booted out of his T-Ball league in Fremont because he was just too good.

His mother still gets a bit amused when telling the story of how 5-year-old Tarik went from having fun with his little teammates – some of whom would veer off into a huge pothole in between first and second base, mistakenly believing another base was hiding there – to suddenly being off the team.

“The Little League board told us, ‘We can’t have him in T-ball. He hits the ball too hard. He’s gonna hurt somebody,’ “ Laura Skubal said during a phone call Monday from Kingman, Ariz., where her family has lived since moving from their Centerville neighborhood home when Tarik was 12.

The Skubals, including his father, Russ, a middle school teacher and high school baseball coach, still cherish their memories from their time in the Bay Area, especially those days and nights spent with their five sons at A’s and Giants games.

“We’re all huge baseball fanatics,” said Laura, whose personal favorite Bay Area baseball moment was when she was at the 1991 game when Rickey Henderson broke the all-time stolen base record. “We went to several A’s games, went to Giants games – we were there when Pac Bell Park first opened. We have some really good baseball memories.”

Detroit Tigers pitcher Tarik Skubal throws against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) 

That’s why Tarik’s start against the A’s in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader held some extra significance for him. Facing one of the hometown teams he grew up rooting for is still special, his mom assured.

“It’s a big deal (to him),” said Laura, noting that Tarik’s first ever start at the Oakland Coliseum last August was a surreal occasion for her son, who still keeps in touch with some of his old East Bay friends. “It was one of those really big moments … we watched him pitch at the stadium where we used to eat all those garlic fries!”

Skubal isn’t the only up-and-coming Tiger standout the Bay Area has produced. Rookie first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the top pick in the 2020 draft who raised eyebrows by earning a spot in the lineup already, grew up destroying baseballs in Petaluma.

As Giants fanatics, the Torkelsons went to many more Giants games than the Skubals did, however. Torkelson was 13 years old when he was at the Giants’ National League pennant-clinching victory over the Cardinals in 2012, when the game ended in a downpour.

He stressed that he and his family were there to the glorious end – they always were, regardless of the weather.

“Leaving the game early is pretty much a sin,” the 22-year-old Torkelson told MLB.com.

Now that he’s a Tigers cornerstone, Torkelson doesn’t talk much about the 2012 World Series, when the Giants swept Detroit.

“It’s probably still a little too soon,” he said. “I don’t bring it up. I’m the biggest Tigers fan in the world now, but in that 2012 World Series, I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t rooting for the Giants. Nowadays, I’m rooting for the Tigers, so I don’t think it matters too much.”
Torkelson is eagerly awaiting his chance to play against his favorite childhood team next month. The Tigers will visit Oracle Park to play the Giants on June 28-29.

For Skubal, who was born in nearby Hayward, his homecoming game last year could have gone much better. He wound up having one of his worst outings of his rookie season in Oakland. He surrendered six runs in five innings and took the loss against the playoff-bound A’s that night.

Still, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound lefty has quickly developed into the potential anchor of a strong, young Detroit rotation, which should include former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize and first-round picks Matt Manning and Alex Faedo for years to come.

Skubal was a ninth-round pick in 2018 out of Seattle University, where his mom is proud to note he earned a degree in financing. His expertise was put to test last year when his mom congratulated him for getting invited to spring training by handing him a piece of paper. “I said, ‘Congratulations, welcome to adulthood, Tarik. Here’s your phone bill. You get to pay it now,’ ” Laura said.

The way Tarik’s career seems to be headed, taking care of bills won’t be an issue. Now armed with a mid-90-mph sinker, Skubal used it to become the first pitcher in Tigers history with at least 29 strikeouts and no more than three walks over his first five starts in a season.

His mother admits she’s a tad superstitious, so she tries not to get too caught up in Tarik’s baseball success – for fear of possibly jinxing something. She’s also careful to point out that, as a mother of five boys, she was still beaming after Mother’s Day when she got to see and speak to them all and realize “they’re all productive members of society and I can’t ask for anything better.”

Actually, Laura did wish for something better. She had one secret wish for Tarik, one that will never come true since Buster Posey retired.

“Detroit is a wonderful place and they’ve treated Tarik so well, but my dream was for Buster to catch for him,” Laura admitted. “It broke my heart when Buster retired. He’s such a quality individual. Plus, I knew (Tarik) would be a better pitcher because of (Posey).”