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Tigers’ Tarik Skubal is learning how hard it is to become great

BOSTON — Tarik Skubal stood in front of a red-brick backdrop at Fenway Park and tried to assess his third consecutive lackluster start. Could he isolate anything in particular that went wrong in Wednesday’s 6-2 loss to the Red Sox?

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” Skubal said.

After so much progress through his first 10 starts of the year — fewer fastballs, more sliders, a dramatic increase in groundballs and a version of Skubal that overall seemed looser, more comfortable and confident as hell — Wednesday felt like a flashback to last season. There were good moments, like the second inning where Skubal went after Xander Bogaerts and Alex Verdugo and came away with overpowering strikeouts. But there were bad moments, too. He had a 29-pitch third inning. He left an 0-2 slider too high to Rob Refsnyder and paid with a home run over Fenway’s vaunted Green Monster, a ball that would have been a home run in only seven MLB parks but counts nonetheless. Skubal tied a season-high with three walks and watched as his velocity dipped into the lower 90s as his outing went along. Even postgame, Skubal was clearly frustrated, short with his words, an intense competitor who doesn’t always forget about his mistakes quickly.

“I can be frustrated if I want, but it doesn’t matter,” Skubal said. “What I did on the field is what matters. Not doing my job is the most frustrating part.”

A long memory is a blessing and a curse for a pitcher. No doubt Skubal will go back and watch the film and learn from what went wrong. Coming into Wednesday, Skubal had been fighting his own mechanics, struggling to get his arm in sync with his lower half. He said he felt he was in a good rhythm Wednesday, but he got on the side of a few sliders and had a high release point on a few fastballs. His glove-side command still seemed off, and he wasn’t able to dominate on the inner half of the plate like he does when he’s at his best.

“Execution is always gonna be key,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “There’s been a walk in there a little bit more than usual and obviously some big moments where he’s given up some hits and it’s cost him a couple runs. … He’s definitely good enough to make adjustments and get back in the win column.”

Skubal is as driven as they come. He has the stuff and the makeup it takes to become great. But as he is learning, you don’t just wake up one day and become elite. It takes time to reach the apex. He entered the day third among AL pitchers in WAR and second in FIP, taking a jetpack to the top. But after allowing only three runs in five starts from May 10 to June 1, Skubal has hit a speed bump. He went only four innings against the Blue Jays on June 12 and surrendered five runs to the Rangers last week. His rough outings feel compounded because the Tigers so badly need strong pitching to keep their meager offense in games.

Wednesday in Boston, the Red Sox struck for six runs in 4 2/3 innings against Skubal. They completed a three-game sweep of the Tigers in another reminder of how big the gap is between the Tigers and actual contenders.

“I don’t think three rough outings define you just like I don’t think three good outings mean you’ve got it all figured out,” Hinch said. “It’s a tough league and some tough matchups. A couple of them were the AL East teams, where there’s a lot of good clubs in that division.”

Skubal has thrown scoreless outings against the Rockies, Athletics, Orioles and Guardians this season. But the Blue Jays are bashers, the Rangers have a couple of top-notch hitters and the Red Sox are as competitive as they come.

Playoff lineups can challenge aces. And the legit aces can still find ways to shut down the best lineups in baseball.

After such a stellar start to the year — Skubal had a 2.15 ERA through his first 10 starts — a rough stretch was bound to happen. Skubal is only 25 and still has less than two full years of MLB service time.

“He won’t back down,” Hinch said. “He won’t lose confidence. He’s got to learn to make a few adjustments. He’s really hard on himself, but it’s the big leagues.”

Wednesday’s mistakes might linger in Skubal’s mind for four more days. But in learning how difficult this league is, he’s also getting the chance to understand what it truly takes to become one of baseball’s best.

“That’s the beauty of the game,” Skubal said. “You get a lot of starts. Even though these last three haven’t gone the way I wanted to, I get to wake up tomorrow and attack the day and try to get better.”

(Photo: Bob DeChiara / USA Today)

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