Cubs struggle against top prospect Paul Skenes in loss to Pirates

“Yeah, there’s no doubt about it,” manager Craig Counsell said Friday morning before the Cubs’ 9-3 loss to the Pirates in their second matchup against Skenes.

“You’re flashing 102 (mph),” Counsell added. “It’s good.”

As much as Skenes impressed people in his first four-plus inning start against the Cubs – he allowed six hits and three runs and struck out seven – he took it to another level Friday at Wrigley Field. The Cubs recorded no hits against the 21-year-old in his six innings of work. He struck out 11, including the first seven Cubs batters to start the game.

This streak is the third longest by a rookie starting pitcher to start a game in the Live Ball era (since 1920), according to Elias Sports Bureau. Jacob deGrom (September 15, 2014) and Jim Deshaies (September 23, 1986) each struck out eight.

Michael Busch, who walked with one out in the fifth inning, was Chicago’s only baserunner against Skenes.

Skenes’ arsenal includes a four-seam fastball, a splitter and sinker hybrid he calls a “splinker,” a slider, curveball and changeup. On Friday, he relied heavily on his fastball (41 pitches) and splinker (33), while also mixing in the slider (15), curveball (seven) and changeup (four).

“The distribution was really good, and they were really competitive every time,” Counsell said after the game. “There’s enough of a difference in speed on those two pitches that it makes it really difficult.”

Skenes’ four-seamer averaged 99.3 mph and peaked at 101.2 mph Friday. The splinker reached an average speed of 94.8 mph and a maximum of 96.5.

“He’s a big kid who throws a heavy baseball,” said Cubs center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, who ended Skenes’ strikeout streak to start the game when he stranded against first baseman Rowdy Tellez on the second out of the third inning.

“He does a really good job with the mixing and everything. It’s hard to hit someone who throws over 100 with two to three really good secondary pitches and a sinker that travels like a 95 changeup.”

Mike Tauchman, the Cubs’ designated hitter who started Friday, said Skenes’ splinker travels well away from his four-seamer and has a similar look out of the hand, but the off-speed pitch has more run and drop than its heating.

In Skenes’ debut Saturday, the Cubs had a 35 percent whiff rate against him (14 misses on 40 swings), including seven whiffs against his splinker. Of his seven strikeouts that day, four came against his four-seamer, two on his slider and one with his splinker.

On Friday, the Cubs had a 41 percent strikeout rate (22 misses on 54 swings), with 12 whiffs against his four seamer, five on his splinker and four on his slider. Eight Cubs hit against Skenes’ four-seamer, two against his splinker and one against his slider.

“It was a little worse on the mound than his last start,” Tauchman said. “I thought the fastball command was pretty good today and then he was able to dig that splitter or that sinker or whatever he wants to call that pitch, but throw them really, really competitively .

“When you’re dealing with someone with that kind of speed and he’s got command and he’s making you make split-second decisions, you know he’s done a good job.”

Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks took the ball Friday and tied Skenes early; he allowed only one baserunner (a single) in two innings. But Pittsburgh ultimately scored him for 11 hits and eight runs (seven earned) in 4 2/3 innings.

“To be honest, I thought I made two bad throws, which is crazy to look at that start and say that,” Hendricks said, pointing to two changeups he left in the zone. “I thought I was even better in the zone. I thought I performed maybe better than my last start. Just weird. So many soft hits falling in front.

Jared Triolo hit one of those changeups for a two-run homer in the third inning, and Nick Gonzales hit the other for a double in the fourth. At Hendricks’ point, Rowdy Tellez hit a 66.4 mph single to left field immediately before Triolo’s homer. Yasmani Grandal hit a 66.9 mph RBI single in the fourth.

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