Paul Skenes went right after Shohei Ohtani. The result was a brilliant bit of baseball theater

Thu, Jun 6, 2024
MLB News (AP)

Paul Skenes went right after Shohei Ohtani. The result was a brilliant bit of baseball theater

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Paul Skenes wanted to throw Shohei Ohtani something other than a fastball.

Only, he couldn't.

None of Skenes' breaking stuff had really worked during his warmup, so the Pittsburgh Pirates rookie stared in at arguably the most dangerous hitter in baseball during the first inning Wednesday night and did away with pretense.

Three times Skenes unfurled his 6-foot-6 frame and sent a fastball north of 100 mph at Ohtani.

And three times the Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter unleashed his trademark swing, dropping his right foot out to give the bat that tests the farthest reaches of ballparks with alarming regularity room to move.

And Ohtani missed. Once. Twice. Three times.

Major League Baseball began pitch tracking in 2008. That first-inning showdown in what became Pittsburgh's 10-6 win marked the first time a starting pitcher delivered three straight strikes in triple digits in which the batter swung and failed to make contact each time.

"Saw we could hopefully beat him with that (fastball)," Skenes said. "Kept going there and it worked."

Well, it worked that time anyway.

When Ohtani stepped into the box in the third with a man on, Skenes tried to blow it by Ohtani once again. What came in at 100 mph left at 105 mph as the Japanese superstar responded by dropping Skenes' offering into the Los Angeles bullpen beyond the center field wall for a two-run homer.

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"I like to call that 'Big on big' because I obviously beat him a couple times earlier," the 22-year-old Skenes said. "I think that was the right pitch to throw there, he's just a pretty darn good player. Stuff like that is going to happen."

Particularly when facing Ohtani.

The blast was Ohtani's 15th home run of the season. The 29-year-old two-time AL MVP later added a single against Skenes, though he praised the right-hander's stuff, adding it's just not Skenes' velocity that stands out. It's the way all that power comes out of a three-quarter delivery that makes the ball seemingly explode out of his hand.

Still, the Dodgers made Skenes work.

Jason Heyward turned on a 100 mph fastball and clanged it off the Roberto Clemente Wall for a double in the second inning. Andy Pages flipped a slider that caught too much of the middle of the plate into the left-field seats for a homer in the fifth.

Los Angeles and its star-studded lineup kept coming. An error and two singles shortly after Pages' home run loaded the bases and brought Teoscar Hernadez to the plate with a chance to tie the game. Instead, he grounded out sharply to third to end the threat and Skenes' night.

"Good composure," Pirates manager Derek Shelton said about Skenes. "He's going to give up home runs. But when you have an error and you load the bases, and again, having to grind through this lineup, it's not easy. There's All-Stars throughout it. So very impressed with how composed he stayed."

Skenes finished with eight strikeouts and is 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 27 innings since being called up last month. Most of the time during his five starts he has looked every bit the future ace the Pirates envisioned when they selected him with the first pick in the 2023 draft.

Yet Skenes and catcher Yasmani Grandal both stressed he's far from a finished product. That's what makes working with Skenes so tantalizing for the 35-year-old Grandal. He's on the ground floor of something that could turn out to be pretty special.

Even when Skenes' is only sort of ordinary. He only had his fastball against one of the best lineups in the majors and found a way anyway. Grandal can't help but think what Skenes could have done if his "splinker" - a hybrid of a splitter and a sinker - was working.

"If he would've had the offspeed going, I think he would have been able to go six, seven (innings)," Grandal said. "I wouldn't have been surprised if he even got eight."

Asked if he's seen Skenes at his best yet, Grandal shook his head and replied "not even close." Fair considering Skenes has been in the majors less than a month.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton tamped down the notion that Skenes and fellow hard-throwing rookie Jared Jones could receive All-Star consideration, pointing out "I think we're getting way ahead of ourselves."

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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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