SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When Diamondbacks rookie left-hander Tyler Skaggs took the mound for his third start of spring training, it was evident pretty quickly something was different. He was more in command and more himself.
After a chat with manager Kirk Gibson, Skaggs has relaxed and begun focusing less on winning the fifth spot in the starting rotation, and in doing so, he has begun to hit his stride.
Gibson noticed in Skaggs’ first two outings he seemed to be overthinking things and perhaps getting a bit too amped up.
“First time out he was OK, second time he was kind of progressively just overthrowing,” Gibson said.
Skaggs was hesitant at first to admit winning a spot was on his mind but conceded Saturday that beating out Patrick Corbin and Randall Delgado for the final rotation job had perhaps been weighing on him a bit.
“I could see that, but who wouldn’t think about winning the job?” Skaggs said. “So of course it’s in the back of your mind, but it’s how you take it out there. I think last time I kind of just went out there and threw the ball and didn’t really think about anything else. That helped.”
In Skaggs’ first outing, he gave up four runs (two earned) on four hits in just 1 2/3 innings. The next time out, he gave up three runs on three hits in just 2/3 of an inning. Something was up, so Gibson sat Skaggs down.
Skaggs didn’t need a pep talk about pitching in the big leagues; he’s done that. He joined the D-backs’ rotation last season and made six starts, totaling 29 1/3 major league innings before being shut down to rest his arm. What Skaggs needed was a vote of confidence, and Gibson gave it to him.
“He just sat me down and said I need to stop pressing out there, it looks like I’m thinking too much, just go out there and throw the ball, we all know what you can do, you don’t need to impress anybody here,” Skaggs said. “I think that helped, and the results were what I wanted.
“When you hear from the manager you don’t need to impress anybody, you’re pretty sure you don’t need to impress anybody.”
Though he admits it was not easy, Skaggs was able to push concerns about winning a roster spot to the back of his mind and just pitch for a day. His outing came Tuesday against Team Mexico, which meant it didn’t count in his spring training totals, and he was a totally different pitcher. After Ian Kennedy, J.J. Putz and Brad Ziegler got their work in, it was Skaggs’ turn.
In three innings, Skaggs held Team Mexico scoreless on three hits, a walk and three strikeouts. Skaggs did load the bases with one out in the eighth inning but got the next two hitters to pop out and avoided any damage.
“He got in trouble and we left him out there to see how he was going to respond,” Gibson said. “He did a great job, made great pitches.”
Though there’s a lot of spring training left — probably at least four more outings for Skaggs, including a start Sunday against the Athletics — the strong outing helped his chances at earning the final rotation spot.
At D-backs FanFest last month, Skaggs said in an interview he planned to approach every spring outing like Game 7 of the World Series. Though managers love to see such competitive fire and Gibson admitted understanding Skaggs’ mindset, he felt Skaggs was being unfair to himself in that approach.
“Maybe he’s putting pressure on himself, but that’s just something he’s going to have to learn how to deal with,” Gibson said. “We all play with pressure, and you have to learn how to deal with that.”
Skaggs seems to have done so. But asked what he still has to work on this spring, Skaggs doesn’t hesitate to answer “a ton of stuff.” He rattles off a list that includes fastball command and throwing his curveball, which is ranked by Baseball America as the best in the D-backs’ system, for strikes more consistently.
On top of that, Skaggs will continue to deal with the pressure Gibson mentioned, particularly once spring training starts to wind down and the D-backs coaching staff has a decision to make about the final rotation spot. Skaggs admits he’s been able to shift his focus off the competition but never fully blocks it out.
“It’s not like you can get rid of it or anything,” Skaggs said. “Of course you’re going to think about it. It’s your lifelong dream to be in the big leagues, so if you’re not thinking about it, I don’t know what else you’d be thinking about.”
NOTES: The D-backs will host a “B” game against the Giants at Salt River Fields on Sunday morning. Ian Kennedy is scheduled to start against the Giants minor leaguers. That way he stays on his regular pitching schedule and the D-backs can use Tyler Skaggs, a candidate for the fifth rotation spot, as Sunday’s starter against the Athletics. Closer J.J. Putz and knuckleballer Josh Booty are set to pitch after Kennedy in the game. It will be Booty’s first experience against opposing hitters.