3-pitch K, then a HR! Skenes-Ohtani battle features 'big on big'

June 6th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- Wednesday night at PNC Park promised to be a matchup of phenoms, when and the Pirates took on and the Dodgers. And did it ever deliver.

While the Bucs would go on to win 10-6, thanks in large part to a seven-run second inning, that matchup was the main pull of the evening. Skenes, the top pitching prospect of his generation, and Ohtani, the two-way sensation who is in the mix for a third Most Valuable Player Award, had never squared off against each other, and both players decisively won a battle in their first two encounters.

"Ohtani and Skenes is kind of what you want to watch,” said Nick Gonzales, who had four RBIs in the win. “As a player, too. We're just as eager to see those guys go at it as much as the fan. It's really cool to see."

In the first inning, Skenes attacked Ohtani head on with fastballs, challenging him with 101.3, 100.1 and 100.8 mph heat. Ohtani whiffed on all three pitches.

In the third, Ohtani got another crack, this time with Mookie Betts on first. Skenes got two more whiffs, but on a full count, Ohtani got a hold of a 100.1 mph fastball and hit it to dead center for a two-run home run.

The two would square off one more time in the fifth, where Ohtani shot a ground ball through the infield for a single, but Skenes stranded the bases loaded to complete his night of five innings of three-run ball with eight strikeouts.

It was the game’s premier superstar versus its most promising up-and-comer. If you wanted to see something incredible, both players delivered.

“I like to call that big on big, because I obviously beat him a couple times earlier,” 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.”

Skenes didn’t come into the first at-bat of the night thinking he was going to fire three fastballs, but after reading Ohtani’s swings, he kept attacking with heat up. That at-bat was the first time in the pitch tracking era (since 2008) that a starting pitcher recorded a three-pitch strikeout when every offering was over 100 mph and induced a swing and miss.

"I think the one thing we're learning about him is he's not afraid to go after people,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He went right after a really good lineup. Again, the top three guys all have MVP trophies."

That second at-bat, Skenes again attacked with plenty of fastballs, all of which registered at 99.5 mph or greater, but Ohtani was able to finally catch up to a high-velocity, high-spin offering up in the zone.

“Kind of got to tip your cap,” Skenes said. “He’s a good player. Stuff like that is going to happen. They have other really good players, too. And frankly, that’s why we play the game, for matchups like that. Not happy I gave it up, but it’s part of the game.”

Skenes shared with media members on Tuesday that as a two-way player growing up, he idolized what Ohtani was able to do. On Wednesday, Ohtani returned the compliment.

"The stuff itself was really good,” Ohtani said via interpreter Will Ireton. “As you saw in the first at-bat, I couldn't really put together good swings.”

Skenes threw 18 fastballs that registered at 100 mph or higher -- passing his own high watermark of 17 on May 11 for the most of any starter in a game this season -- but that wasn’t the only reason why he got 11 whiffs and six strikeouts with it.

"Rather than the velo, it's really the angle and the release,” Ohtani said.

This was not Skenes’ best start, but it was certainly his toughest test against a lineup thus far. He thinks there’s room for improvement, and it’s intoxicating to wonder just how high that ceiling can go as he continues to mature.

“I think the biggest thing is just as I've been up here, there's not a book really on what I need to do, we're kind of writing as we go along,” Skenes said. “So, how to throw my pitches, where to throw my pitches, when to throw my pitches, that kind of thing. We're just learning as we go along.”