'I grew up watching him': Skenes on facing Ohtani in battle of phenoms

June 5th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- was there for ’s first home start in America. It was April 8, 2018, Ohtani’s second Major League start and his first at Angel Stadium, and the El Toro high school baseball team, located in Lake Forest, Calif., were given free tickets to attend.

Ohtani put on a show for the home crowd, tossing seven innings of one-hit ball with a dozen strikeouts for the Angels. It would be one of the first great days in Ohtani’s career.

“Obviously didn’t know exactly what the baseball world had at the time, but it was cool to watch him compete,” said Skenes on the field at PNC Park on Tuesday.

A lot has changed since April 2018. Ohtani has won a pair of Most Valuable Player Awards, established himself as a bona fide superstar and is building a legacy for himself. Skenes is the top pitching prospect of his generation, firing 102 mph fastballs with a full arsenal of plus pitches.

If there is a veteran and a rookie in this league right now who require no introduction, it’s Ohtani and Skenes.

On Wednesday, Skenes will get to see Ohtani play from a whole new point of view. He’ll take the hill for the Pirates at 6:40 p.m. ET, taking on Ohtani and the Dodgers in the middle contest of the three-game set. Assuming all goes according to plan, it will be a matchup of the game’s top young pitcher versus the two-way sensation.

“I grew up watching him,” Skenes said. “As a two-way guy, that was what I was trying to be before I got drafted. He was an inspiration in a lot of ways.”

Skenes played catcher and hit through his high school career and first two years of college at the Air Force Academy, but took off as a pitcher in his junior year with Louisiana State, when he decided to put the bat down. The rest of the league took notice, and the Pirates took him with the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s Draft.

While Skenes has expressed that he does miss hitting, it’s clear he made the right decision to focus on just pitching. (Though he did admit he took a few swings this offseason.) He’s lived up to his ridiculously high expectations through four Major League starts, and is already 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA over 22 innings, striking out 30 hitters along the way.

“It was last year, I think, we were watching him [pitch] in the College World Series,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “For him to make his arrival and impact so soon, you just don't see it very often.”

You also don’t see a top three like the Dodgers’ all that often. Ohtani usually bats second, sandwiched between Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman in what might be the scariest top of the order in the game.

While Ohtani is only hitting this season as he rehabs back from right elbow surgery, he is making a case for a third MVP with his bat alone, hitting .322 with 14 home runs and a .988 OPS in his first season with the Dodgers. And with fellow MVPs hitting in front of and behind him, there’s no way to pitch around him.

“It's the big leagues,” said Pirates manager Derek Shelton. “You're seeing one of the best teams in baseball. I haven't seen their lineup for tomorrow, but I'm assuming you're gonna get three MVPs at the top and you just have to execute pitches. It's really good for our young players to see a team of this caliber, to see how you go out and execute.”

“I’ve just got to execute,” Skenes said. “We’re going to have a good plan going in there. Just got to execute the plan. Hopefully, it will work out for us.”

Perhaps in the future, Skenes will get to go up against Ohtani the pitcher, too, but for now, he just has to focus on him as a hitter. It does beg the question: Since he grew up idolizing him, does Skenes think Ohtani is a better hitter or pitcher?

“I don’t know,” Skenes answered, cracking a smile. “He’s pretty darn good both ways.”