Paul Skenes didn't have his best stuff against the Giants. The Pirates rookie made it work anyway

Thu, May 23, 2024
MLB News (AP)

Paul Skenes didn't have his best stuff against the Giants. The Pirates rookie made it work anyway

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Paul Skenes tugged on one black dress shoe, then another. He slowly unfurled his 6-foot-6 frame from the chair in front of his locker, pulled on a blue blazer, ran his hands through his black hair, and turned to face the cameras.

It's not just the 21-year-old's stuff that's different.

While most of his Pittsburgh Pirates teammates quietly exited the clubhouse in T-shirts, shorts and sneakers following a 7-6 loss to San Francisco on Thursday, Skenes looked as though he was heading out for a business dinner.

Fitting for a player who takes his dream job very, very seriously.

There is a maturity to Skenes both on and off the mound that belies his age. Both were on full display in his third big league start, when Skenes didn't so much dominate the Giants for six innings as much as he out-thought them.

On a day when command of his breaking balls was iffy at best and he "only" threw four pitches that reached 100 mph and struck out just three of the 23 batters he faced, Skenes found a way to make it work anyway.

"Just have to make pitches because they're going to put the ball in play," Skenes said. "Just got to trust my stuff and trust that it's going to (create) weak contact. Overall, pretty good."

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Six days after Skenes threw six electrifying no-hit innings against the Cubs, the Giants managed to ding him for six singles and a walk. They also hit into a pair of double plays and managed just one run despite getting at least one baserunner in every inning but the second.

And maybe that is as important in Skenes' development as what he showcased against the Cubs. He's not going to have his best every time out. No pitcher does. Yet he gave the Pirates a chance to win anyway in the kind of performance that may end up speeding up a learning curve that's already way ahead of schedule.

"There's going to be so many growing moments for him, but last start out he doesn't give up any hits," Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. "Then this start he has to navigate through traffic, he has to navigate through some veteran hitters. It's definitely going to make him better."

San Francisco third baseman Matt Chapman - like Skenes a graduate of El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California - doesn't think it's a coincidence that the Giants made their comeback only after Skenes exited.

"I think the future's bright for that guy," Chapman said. "And it's exciting to see somebody from the same high school go out there and have success as quickly as he has."

The way Skenes carries himself and the way he goes about his business makes it seem like he's been around for a while. He hasn't.

Three weeks ago he was in Triple-A. A year ago he was at LSU helping the Tigers to a national title. Two springs ago he was a catcher/reliever at the Air Force Academy who faced the difficult but necessary decision to transfer if he wanted to give himself a shot at the big leagues sooner rather than later.

Now he's here. And in some ways he's already a sensation. His starts are already known simply as "Skenes Day." Livvy Dunne, Skenes' girlfriend and a gymnast/influencer was among the 23,000 - some of them wearing his No. 30 jersey, others with their own take on his trademark mustache - who turned out to watch Skenes during a weekday matinee, more than 8,000 higher than the largest crowd for a getaway game at PNC Park this season.

All this for a player who doesn't turn 22 until next week and has now thrown a grand total of 22 1/3 innings in the majors. Skenes has tried to take the wave of notoriety in stride. Still, there will be days when things don't go his way. Considering the way Skenes was fighting his breaking stuff, Thursday could have been one of those games. It wasn't.

"I think everybody's going to obviously expect him to just go out there and dominate everybody ... and, there's a good chance he does," Pirates catcher Joey Bart said. "But, it's really hard for a kid that was pitching in the SEC Tournament last year at this time. So, I really like the way he's composed himself. I've been impressed."

Even if it means Bart, now six years into his professional career, has to pick up a few things on the fly, including how to handle Skenes' "splinker," a hybrid of a splitter and a sinker that dives through the strike zone in the mid-to-upper 90s.

"I've never heard of it, never seen it, I didn't even know what it was when he threw it at me, to be honest with you," Bart said. "But, it's good."

And Skenes is good. How good? Only time will tell. Yet he and fellow rookie pitcher Jared Jones have given Pittsburgh something that's been in short supply for most of the last three decades: hope.

Jones, all of 22, kept the Giants in check on Wednesday. Skenes did the same less than 24 hours later. Pittsburgh's bullpen found a way to let both winnable games slip away. It's one of the reasons Shelton's frustration afterward was so palpable.

The arrival of two of the best young pitchers in the game has upped the stakes and the buzz around a franchise that's largely been an afterthought lately.

The window to win in Pittsburgh is creaking open. Skenes is proving he's more than capable of helping with the lifting.



WILL GRAVES Graves is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Pittsburgh. He covers the NFL, MLB, NHL, the Olympics and major college sports. twitter facebook mailto "
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