Paul Skenes ready to live up to hype as prized Pirates rookie prepares for major league debut

“You can’t just show up to spring training and throw seven innings, even though I feel like I could,” Skenes said.

Instead, the Pirates opted to slowly move forward on the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft in hopes of protecting the 21-year-old’s right arm who routinely delivers fastballs reaching triple digits. The construction of Triple-A Indianapolis was gradual and deliberate.

Skenes understood the mission. He embraced it as best he could during seven almost uniformly dominant starts in which he posted a 0.99 ERA, doing his best to fend off questions about when “the call” would come out of his mind.

It worked. Maybe too good.

Skenes was taking a nap Wednesday when manager Miguel Perez tried to break the news that Skenes was headed to Pittsburgh. Perez, who is notoriously creative in finding ways to let his players know they are progressing, chose to take a more direct approach with Skenes. Ideal for a franchise that wants the future to arrive as quickly as possible.

“He says, ‘Are you really going to make me get another pitcher on Saturday?'” Skenes said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know, do you?’ He said, “Yes, that’s true. You’re going to the show.’

The conversation lasted two minutes. Less than 48 sometimes frantic hours later, Skenes walked into a PNC Park clubhouse Friday that had a booth bearing his name and the number “30.” Skenes will make his first major league start Saturday against the Chicago Cubs, perhaps the most anticipated start since former Washington star Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 Pirates in 2009.

Skenes, who turned 7 that night, has no memory of it. Then again, life has been happening so fast lately that it can be hard to keep up.

Two years ago, he was a somewhat anonymous transfer from Air Force to LSU. He is now considered the franchise cornerstone of a club that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1979.

This can be a lot to absorb.

“Two years ago, it seems both very long and very short, if that makes sense,” he said. “In a way, it flew by. In a way, it was really long.”

The buzz in the city and on social media since Skenes’ promotion was announced has been palpable. He tries to ignore it. The emphasis is on “trying,” given that his girlfriend is LSU gymnast and prominent social media influencer Livvy Dunne, who joined Skenes for his first trip to Pittsburgh as a big player.

“I do my best not to see anything, but at the same time it’s inevitable,” he said. “You’re going to have to see some of it.”

Even though Skenes – who has never thrown more than 75 pitches in any of his starts in Indianapolis – considers his preparation “complete,” it is unlikely he will be allowed to go much beyond that. number against the Cubs.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton noted that “it was time” for Skenes to join the Pirates because “he checked all the boxes that we felt he needed to do in the minor leagues and he checked them very quickly.” “.

But not quickly enough for Pittsburgh to let Skenes think about reaching the 100-throw mark, a number he reached in 12 of his 19 starts last year at LSU.

“There will still be a process as we move forward,” Shelton said.

It’s a process Skenes has confidence in, thanks in part to how the Pirates have handled rookie right-hander Jared Jones.

Jones, 22, made the team after spring training and entered Friday’s game against the Cubs with a 2.63 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 41 innings. Pittsburgh has used kid gloves at times with Jones, although he also threw a career-high 96 pitches in seven brilliant innings against Colorado last weekend.

“It’s also a little easier knowing I’m not the only one going through (a surge),” Skenes said. “It’s frustrating to go out there and throw three innings (even though) I knew I was going to throw three innings. I knew that was preparing me to be able to throw six, seven, eight innings next September, October . year.”

The use of the word “October” was intentional. The Pirates didn’t draft Skenes and give him a record $9.2 million signing bonus just to sell tickets (although that will almost certainly happen). They see a player who can potentially help take the franchise to where it hasn’t been in decades.

Pittsburgh entered the weekend 6-16 after an 11-5 start. Although the offense has struggled, a starting rotation considered a question mark early in the season looks like it could be a strength thanks to the emergence of Jones, the steady hand of Martin Perez and arrival of Skenes.

“I would definitely say we’re close,” Skenes said. “I think being with the team in spring training and watching the club over the last month, we’re close. I think there’s a lot to look forward to.”

Skenes is not afraid of the challenge that awaits him. Yet he will try to breathe in a moment that he has long dreamed of but tried to push out of his mind until it finally happens.

“I really want to take a minute and realize how cool this is.”