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Pirates pitching phenom Paul Skenes lives up to the hype in wild, rain-delayed debut

PITTSBURGH – It rained in the Steel City for most of Saturday. First it rains, then he walks and runs, then it rains again.

But for Paul Skenes, and for Paul Skenes only, the sun shone in Pittsburgh.

Skenes, the world’s top pitching prospect, was both dominant and rusty in his highly anticipated major league debut. His flashes of genius electrified an agitated crowd at PNC Park. Her premature departure made him angry. The final line – four innings, three runs, seven strikeouts – doesn’t tell the whole story. Skenes, on a strict pitch limit, has been very good. His fellow Pittsburgh pitchers were not.

Immediately after Skenes departed in the fifth, a trio of Pirates relievers implausibly turned a 6-1 lead into an 8-6 deficit before escaping the inning. They allowed six bases-loaded walks. Baseball has never left the infield. In the middle of this interminable and historically embarrassing framework: a delay of 2 hours and 20 minutes due to rain. It all made for an unforgettable and bizarre day and night of baseball, which the Pirates ultimately won 10-9, 5 hours and 16 minutes after the start.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this,” Pirates skipper Derek Shelton breathed after the final out.

Before all the chaos, a steady spring downpour threatened to dampen proceedings. For most of Saturday morning, before the most high-profile Pirates game in years, Pittsburgh was drenched. Until two hours before the first pitch, raindrops pattered on the enormous tarpaulin protecting the infield of PNC Park. Even Mother Nature, it seemed, wanted to keep the Pirates faithful away from anything resembling optimism.

But 90 minutes before the match, the downpour stopped. Members of the Pirates grounds crew hurried to remove the tarp and prepare the field. The picturesque Pittsburgh skyline, beautifully nestled behind the outfield fence, came into view. Supporters flocked to the court. An upbeat pop blared from the stadium speakers. Paul Skenes’ MLB debut was a success.

At exactly 3:22 p.m. ET, a warm ray of sunlight broke through the gray canvas of the Allegheny Cloud. Moments later, like a scene from a cheesy Hallmark movie, Skenes emerged from the Pirates’ dugout, bright and resplendent in his crisp white uniform. In his right hand is a black ballglove with gold trim. To his left, a bag of equipment and weighted balls for his warm-up routine. Flanked by a procession of cameras, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound pitcher strolled across the outfield grass toward the home bullpen and into the light.

Another storm was looming on the horizon that would eventually derail the day, but the crowd couldn’t know the future. They roared with satisfaction; they had waited long enough.

Skenes’ arrival was crowned with hype that was both irresponsible and understandable. Generationally talented 21-year-olds are still 21. Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington sought to manage expectations during their pregame remarks. But their suggestions didn’t mean much to the more than 34,000 people who came for an experience they hoped to remember.

Drafted first overall in the 2023 MLB Draft, Skenes has ascended through the minor leagues faster than any No. 1 pick in over 30 years. Built like momentum, powered by the tenacity of a pit bull and armed with a triple-digit fastball, Skenes eviscerated hitters in 27 2/3 innings for Triple-A Indianapolis. Fans and tipsters have been eagerly awaiting a call-up. And with each minor league start, the calls grew louder and louder.

Eventually, the Pirates, driven by Skenes’ excellent minor league numbers, relented. The team announced Wednesday that its golden child would be promoted to make his big league debut Saturday against Chicago.

Given the circumstances, Skenes showed himself well. He struck out the first two batters he faced and made the third, Cody Bellinger, 0-2 before walking him. A Christopher Morel through ball closed out the frame. In his four innings, the Cubs struck out seven times against Skenes, whiffing 14 times on 40 swings. Uneven fastball command put Skenes behind in some counts, but his 95 mph “splinker” helped him escape virtually unscathed.

In the fourth, Nico Hoerner launched a center slider into the left field bleachers on a solo shot, which appeared to be the only blemish on Skenes’ record after he hit Yan Gomes to end the frame. Then all hell broke loose.

Skenes allowed two hits to start the fifth. Buccos skipper Derek Shelton made a slow effort, amid a hail of boos, to remove his phenom from the match. In came Kyle Nicolas, who recorded two quick outs before diving Ian Happ to load the bases. Nicolas then threw 12 straight balls, walking three Cub runs – two of which were loaded at Skenes – before Shelton pulled him. Josh Fleming came in, and two more Cubs came in, one on another walk and the next on a dribbler’s infield single to tie the game.

And that’s when the heavens opened. A torrential downpour interrupted the match, sending a battered Pirates club back to its locker room. Dozens of fans ran for cover. Many left the yard, trudging across the Clemente Bridge to their cars and homes.

Skenes, who had remained in the dugout to watch the end of the inning, walked alone up the stairs that lead to the PNC Park tunnel and down to the clubhouse, in one hand a black glove with gold trim, in the other. those little bags of pre-match odds and ends. His beginnings were over.

After the rain delay, the Pirates would end up winning the game, despite two extra runs at the start of that perennial fifth inning started by Skenes. In the bottom half of the game, catcher Yasmani Grandal launched a three-run homer to give Pittsburgh a lead it would not relinquish. Pirates talisman Andrew McCutchen added a solo smash for good measure. Hometown closer David Bednar did enough to secure the save. Fireworks erupted during the final withdrawal.

None of this seemed to faze the comically monotonous Skenes, who nonchalantly proclaimed in his post-match interview that he was simply “glad to have won.”

And that’s the thing about Skenes, as cliché as it sounds: he’s here to win.

Those who know him from his days at the Air Force Academy speak of his intense drive and determination to succeed. In his lone season at LSU, he started 19 games and lost only once. Multiple times during interviews, Skenes prioritized “winning a World Series” over any personal accomplishments. He is a serious person, who is not satisfied with mediocrity.

But the Big Moose alone can’t bring Pittsburgh to sustained proficiency, much less competition. Rookie Jared Jones has shined so far this season, and the Pirates are still 6.5 games out of first in the NL Central, with a minus-26 point differential.

Supporters remain skeptical of the Cherington regime, citing a clear lack of progress in the standings. But the culture of defeat goes back much further than the mandate of this organization. Only the Royals, who won a title in 2015, have lost more games this century than Pittsburgh, and the Pirates are the only team not to appear in the League Championship Series in the wild-card era (1994). Their 9-2 start this year evaporated in a flash when the offense went ice cold.

All of this means that even if Skenes lives up to the hype, the Pirates face a tough climb back into October. So Pittsburgh’s future is both bright and cloudy. There are good reasons to expect sun and rain. On Saturday it was both, only because Paul Skenes moved the clouds.

It won’t be the last time.

News Source : sports.yahoo.com
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