Maybe Paul Skenes Can Pitch In Relief Too?

On Saturday morning, Paul Skenes—first overall draft pick in 2023, celebrity boyfriend, and mustachioed tall man—was someone that Pirates fans very badly wanted to see pitch in the majors. Today, following his MLB debut, he is someone that Pirates fans very badly want to see pitch in the majors again. By that measure, his time on the mound against the Cubs was a success. But that pass/fail grading system undersells both the pure Pittsburgh misery and the ultimate messy triumph that the Pirates achieved after Skenes’s work was done.

First, the good stuff. Have you ever seen a tightrope walk at 100 miles per hour? That’s what Skenes pulled off after letting his command slip and the bases load in the second inning of his start. With no room for error, he mixed his mid-80s breaking stuff with a supernova fastball and intimidated Yan Gomes into a strikeout before getting a groundout from Mike Tauchman. Check out the last two pitches the 21-year-old threw to Gomes—first a wide-ranging slider that he has to chase, and then a pitch 16 mph faster that has him flinching at its late motion even as it nails the strike zone. Even in slow-mo it feels like there’s no opportunity for the hitter to react before it’s in the glove.

Skenes’s afternoon was a very intriguing one, showcasing the raw brilliance that earned him all the hype even though he’s not entirely polished yet. And it was Cubs hitter Seiya Suzuki who saw Skenes at his absolutely nastiest in his first two at-bats, striking out on six total pitches. In the first, it was all off-speed (relatively speaking). But in the third, Suzuki unwittingly helped explain the full range of Skenes’s abilities. He got handcuffed on the so-called “splinker” that nibbled the strike zone, wrong-footed by a slider that started way inside, and then finally frozen by a beautiful dart on the outside edge. Skenes hit 100 on the gun 17 times in this short appearance, and that consistent speed, combined with the deception on the other pitches when they’re working correctly, don’t allow hitters to do much more than guess or hope for walks.

Skenes left after giving up two hits in the top of the fifth, finishing with a weak tapper of an infield single that Suzuki went across the plate to meet. In four-plus innings he was tagged with six hits, two walks, an HBP, a home run to Nico Hoerner on a toothless slider, and seven strikeouts. If that line leaves clear room for improvement, it felt downright Johnsonian compared to what followed. When Skenes departed, the Pirates were leading 6-1. Approximately two-and-a-half hours later, Pittsburgh finished the half-inning down 8-6.

The man with the unenviable task of replacing Skenes on the mound was Kyle Nicolas, another rookie. He looked up for it at first, notching two quick Ks, but then his control fell apart. Nicolas hit a man to tag Skenes with another earned run. Then he walked a guy. Then he walked a guy. Then he walked a guy. After Nicolas was pulled for Josh Fleming, you could hear “Fire Shelton!” chants on the broadcast, targeting the Pirates manager for ending Skenes’s shift. Fleming didn’t calm down the fans by closing up the wound. Instead, he … walked a guy. Then he allowed a base hit out of an 0-2 start. And with the score tied, a thunderstorm forced everybody to cool off.

In a game that felt like it revolved entirely around one phenomenal young starter, the Pirates’ bats were the real heroes. Connor Joe, Oneil Cruz, and Michael Taylor all found the seats early in a thwarted attempt to get Skenes an official win. After the rain, Yasmani Grandal smashed a go-ahead three-run shot in the bottom of the fifth, and Andrew McCutchen wowed the few fans who stayed with a sixth-inning sockdolager off Richard Lovelady that provided a critical insurance run. David Bednar—a trustworthy closer in 2023 but the loosest screw in the Pirates’ bullpen this year—almost gave it away with two hits and a sac fly to begin the ninth. But a groundout and a flyout stranded the tying run at third and finally put this game to rest, 10-9.

Skenes’s next start is penciled in for Wrigley next Thursday, and it’ll be a tricky challenge to already face MLB hitters who’ve gotten a few good looks at him. But after all the anxiety and hoopla that surrounded his big-league debut, he sounded ready to become just a normal part of the team’s starting rotation.

“I’m big on routines,” Skenes said in the postgame, “So the last week has been tough.”

If the comfort of stability is something Skenes can’t do without, good luck getting used to playing for these Pirates.

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