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

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

PITTSBURGH — It poured in the Steel City for the better part of Saturday. First rain, then walks and runs, then rain again.

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

Skenes, the best pitching prospect in the world, was both dominant and rusty in his highly anticipated major-league debut. His flashes of brilliance electrified an antsy PNC Park crowd. His premature departure angered it. The final line — four innings, three runs, seven strikeouts — doesn’t tell the whole story. Skenes, on a strict pitch limit, was very good. His fellow Pittsburgh pitchers were not.

Immediately after Skenes departed in the fifth, a trio of Pirates relievers implausibly transformed a 6-1 lead into a 8-6 deficit before escaping the inning. They surrendered six bases-loaded walks. The baseball never left the infield. In the middle of that endless, historically embarrassing frame: a 2-hour, 20-minute rain delay. It all made for an unforgettably bizarre day and night of baseball, one the Pirates eventually won 10-9, 5 hours and 16 minutes after it began.

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

Before all the mayhem, a steady spring shower threatened to dampen the proceedings. Through most of Saturday morning, ahead of the most hyped Pirates game in years, Pittsburgh was drenched. Until two hours before first pitch, raindrops pattered the enormous tarp protecting PNC Park’s infield dirt. Even Mother Nature, it seemed, wanted to keep the Pirates faithful away from anything resembling optimism.

But 90 minutes before game time, the downpour stopped. Members of the Pirates grounds crew hurried to remove the tarp and prepare the field. Pittsburgh’s picturesque skyline, nestled beautifully behind the outfield fence, revealed itself. Fans streamed into the yard. Upbeat pop blared from the stadium speakers. The MLB debut of Paul Skenes was a go.

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

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

Skenes’ arrival was crowned with a level of hype both irresponsible and understandable. Generationally talented 21-year-olds are still 21. Both Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington sought to manage expectations during their pregame remarks. But their suggestions meant little to the 34,000-plus who came out to experience something they hoped to remember.

Drafted first overall in the 2023 MLB Draft, Skenes rocketed up the minor leagues faster than any No. 1 pick in more than 30 years. Built like a moose, propelled by the tenacity of a pitbull and armed with a triple-digit fastball, Skenes eviscerated hitters across 27 2/3 innings for Triple-A Indianapolis. Fans and prognosticators alike pined for a call-up. And with each minor-league start, the calls grew louder.

Eventually the Pirates, pushed by the sheer excellence of Skenes’ minor-league numbers, relented. The team announced Wednesday that their golden child would be promoted to make his big-league debut on Saturday against Chicago.

Considering the circumstances, Skenes showed well. He punched out the first two hitters he faced and took the third, Cody Bellinger, to 0-2 before walking him. A deep fly ball from Christopher Morel closed the frame. Over his four innings, the Cubs punched out seven times against Skenes, whiffing 14 times on 40 swings. Spotty fastball command put Skenes behind in some counts, but his 95 mph “splinker” helped him escape mostly unscathed.

In the fourth, Nico Hoerner lofted a middle-away slider into the left-field bleachers on a solo shot, which looked like it would be the only blemish on Skenes’ record after he punched out Yan Gomes to end the frame. Then all hell broke loose.

Skenes allowed two hits to begin the fifth. Buccos skipper Derek Shelton made the slow trudge, under a hailstorm of boos, to remove his phenom from the game. In came Kyle Nicolas, who recorded two quick outs before plunking Ian Happ to load the bases. Nicolas then proceeded to toss 12 consecutive balls, walking in three Cub runs — two of which were charged to Skenes — before Shelton yanked him. In came Josh Fleming, and in came two more Cubs, one on another walk and the next on an infield dribbler single to tie the game.

And that’s when the heavens opened up. A torrential downpour paused the game, sending a bedraggled Pirates club back to their locker room. Scores of fans raced to shelter. Many left the yard, slogging through the wet 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 flight of stairs that leads to the PNC Park tunnel and down to the home clubhouse, in one hand a black glove with gold trim, in the other those small bags of pregame bric-a-brac. His debut had come and gone.

After the rain delay, the Pirates would, eventually, somehow, win the ballgame, despite allowing two more runs in the top of that eternal fifth inning Skenes started. In the bottom half of the frame, catcher Yasmani Grandal cranked a go-ahead, three-run homer to give Pittsburgh a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Pirates talisman Andrew McCutchen added a solo smash for good measure. Hometown closer David Bednar did enough to secure the save. Fireworks erupted with the final out.

None of it seemed to faze the comically monotone Skenes, who nonchalantly proclaimed in his postgame interview that he was just “glad we got a win.”

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

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

But the Big Moose cannot single-handedly carry Pittsburgh to sustained competence, let alone contention. Fellow 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 run differential.

Fans remain skeptical of the Cherington regime, citing a lack of obvious progress in the standings. But the culture of losing extends back much further than this organization’s tenure. Only the Royals, who won a title in 2015, have lost more games this century than Pittsburgh, and the Pirates are the only team without a League Championship Series appearance in the wild-card era (1994). Their 9-2 start this year evaporated in a flash when the offense went ice cold.

It all means that even if Skenes lives up to the hype, the Pirates face a difficult climb back to October. And so, the future in Pittsburgh is both bright and cloudy. There is reason to expect sun and rain. Saturday had both, only because Paul Skenes moved the clouds.

It won’t be the last time.

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