Skenes strikes out 7, tops 100 mph 17 times in MLB debut

Phenom pitches 4+ innings as Bucs outlast Cubs after 2+ hour rain delay

May 12th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- As if it were scripted, the rain clouds parted and the sun snuck through to the North Shore of Pittsburgh as walked out of the dugout to go to his pregame bullpen Saturday.

The fans who were already seated 40 minutes before first pitch gave him a round of applause as he walked out to center field with his glove and bag of balls. Waiting for him there were dozens of more Pirates faithful, packed to the edge of the concourse overlooking the bullpen to watch him throw up close.

For most of the day, Skenes was locked in. He doesn’t spend time in the dugout whenever his team hits, opting to go to the tunnel by himself so he can focus on his job. He didn’t even notice that his teammates held back when he ran to the pitcher’s mound to start the game, giving him a moment all to himself on the diamond in front of an announced crowd of 34,924.

But that walk?

“Walking out to the bullpen, being in the bullpen, that kinda thing, I took a little bit of time to reflect,” said Skenes.

The Major League debut of the top pitching prospect of his generation was far from a clean affair. There was a two hour, 20-minute rain delay. The Pirates issued six bases-loaded walks in the fifth inning. Skenes himself was a bit more wild with his fastball than normal, and was only able to go four-plus innings on 84 pitches.

But the Pirates wound up victorious over the Cubs, winning 10-9 by riding five home runs by the offense and Skenes’ seven strikeouts.

It took just one batter for Skenes to show exactly what made him the first overall pick in last year’s Draft, pumping five triple-digit fastballs in the six-pitch at-bat that ended with a Mike Tauchman whiff. He threw four more pitches 100 mph or faster in the inning and 17 total in the game, including a 101.9 mph pitch that was the fastest recorded by a Pirates pitcher in the pitch tracking era (since 2008).

Skenes would have to work around a couple of walks, six hits and a hit batter, but it was the slider -- or his “splinker” splitter-sinker hybrid -- with which he was able to navigate the Cubs’ lineup.

“I would guess he was a little bit over-amped, so the fastball command, you know, wasn't as sharp as we'd seen it in [Triple-A] Indy,” said manager Derek Shelton. “And understandably. I mean the crowd was into it. That was fun … I think he'll learn from it and be able to build off it, but overall, the stuff is really good."

While Skenes was able to work out of a bases-loaded jam in the second by getting Yan Gomes to strike out and Tauchman to ground out to second, it did get his pitch count up early, which played into his fifth-inning removal.

The Pirates did not indicate what his pitch limit would be, but going off of his recent track record with Indianapolis, the mid-80s seemed like a distinct possibility. It ended up being true, and a double and infield single to start the fifth ended up spelling the end of his afternoon, with Shelton pulling him at 84 pitches, the most he has thrown as a professional.

He exited with the Pirates ahead, 6-1, but with no chance at the win, which would have been the cherry on top of the debut.

And given the Pirates are going to operate with a six-man rotation for the short-term, meaning they were down a man in the bullpen, that led to a wild Kyle Nicolas being given a longer leash than he ideally would have. He hit a batter and issued three walks in a 13-pitch span during what was a bizarre seven-run fifth that nearly cost the Pirates the game.

As Skenes' pitch count grew in the early frames, it was a reminder that more efficient outs could have given him a bit more length.

“I have to get them out quicker, regardless if they're Major League hitters or not, I just have to get them out quicker,” Skenes said. “That's the bigger thing for me, because, I think the way I threw today, it probably would've been a deep [start], or bigger pitch count.”

That’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of that debut, though.

“It’s huge,” said closer David Bednar. “It definitely brings a different level of excitement down here to PNC. I think he definitely answered the call.”

Skenes’ catcher on Saturday, Yasmani Grandal, has caught some elite arms in his career. Potential Hall of Famers, pitchers who have won Cy Youngs.

When this reporter broached a question postgame, leading with that preamble, Grandal politely interjected.

"We'll talk about it once he becomes a Cy Young [winner], and if he does, I'll give you my number and then you can call me five, six years from now,” said Grandal, before cracking a smile. “Or maybe sooner. You never know."