Just like old times for Arenado and Skenes, who share MLB field for 1st time

June 12th, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- Years ago, when was back home in Southern California and at his alma mater of El Toro High School to work out with the baseball team, coach Mike Gonzales told him countless stories of a strong-armed, 6-foot-6 catcher who would soon be heading to the Air Force Academy on a Division-I baseball scholarship.

Not long after those conversations, Arenado made sure to meet the wide-shouldered catcher with the big arm who was also quite the accomplished hitter at the time. Little did Arenado know it back then -- or when a pre-teen Skenes would occasionally hit with Arenado and brother Jonah -- that "catcher, Paul Skenes," would eventually change positions and become one of the game’s brightest young pitching stars.

On Tuesday at Busch Stadium, the two El Toro High products and Lake Forest, Calif., natives squared off for the first time in the big leagues. While Arenado got two hits off Pittsburgh’s 22-year-old superstar-in-the-making, Skenes’ Pirates won the game, 2-1, with two runs in the ninth inning and some closing work by David Bednar with the game on the line.

“He’s good, man, and he looks like he knows what he’s doing,” Arenado said of Skenes. “He seems like he’s very much in control of the situation and it looks like nothing is getting to him. He’s a stud.”

Even in a defeat, Arenado was quite the stud himself on Tuesday, going 2-for-4 with a double and two stellar defensive plays. Arenado hit a single in the fifth for just the second knock by the Cardinals. Then, in the seventh, Arenado doubled to chase the 235-pound right-hander.

Afterward, Skenes admitted feeling all kinds of emotions while battling the 33-year-old Arenado.

"That was cool, but he pissed me off a little bit,” said Skenes, who struck out eight and didn’t allow a run over 6 1/3 innings. “It was cool. Kind of surreal. Way back when, I used to hit with his dad and his brother when I was like 8 or 10 years old. It was a cool moment, for sure."

Arenado said he was most impressed by the maturity flashed by Skenes, who was making just his sixth MLB start. He came into the game 3-0 with 38 strikeouts in 27 innings, but he had recently encountered a problem with long balls after surrendering three homers in the past two outings.

Skenes, who retired the first 10 hitters before Alec Burleson’s opposite-field single in the fourth inning, kept the Cardinals in the park on Tuesday. He threw seven pitches of at least 100 mph, but only one after the second inning. He got 56 swings and 14 whiffs, per Baseball Savant, with the misses coming on his four-seam fastball (four) splitter (three), curveball (four) and slider (three).

“He just mixes everything really well,” Arenado raved. “I knew he had great stuff, but I didn’t know he was going to mix it in like that. He did a really good job, he’s a stud and he’s a problem.”

Arenado proved to be a problem, as well, for the Pirates after he made a diving stop of a line drive and tagged the bag for an inning-ending double play to turn back a rally in the seventh inning. In the eighth, Arenado aggressively attacked a Michael A. Taylor bunt and fired back to third to get Nick Gonzales, who had opened the inning with a double. Including the two hits and the two times that Arenado hustled to take an extra base, he left his teammates in awe.

“Nolan is such a big part of this team and such a tremendous competitor,” said Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas, who outdueled Skenes and took a no-hitter into the top of the seventh before Bryan Reynolds’ leadoff triple. “Some days it seems like he has a little extra chip on his shoulder, going out there and really fighting. That’s what we saw tonight, and he was incredible.”

Arenado said that he hopes to use his time prior to Wednesday’s game to catch up with Skenes, someone he hasn’t talked to in years since those hitting sessions or when he heard legendary stories about the catcher-turned-pitcher for the Pirates.

“I’d come home in the offseason, and I’d ask my coach, ‘Who’s good on the team?’” Arenado remembered. “It’s a big deal when you get a Division-I scholarship and he said, ‘We’ve got a catcher going to Air Force.’ I was like, ‘Oh that’s sweet, Division I, that’s sick!’ And it was Paul.

“He’s turned into an absolute stud. I know our high school coach is pumped and our hometown is excited. It was fun facing him, but I’m a lot older than him. It’s a little weird, but it’s also kind of cool.”