Paul Skenes, 2021 Wareham Gateman, shines in MLB debut

Skenes-Harrison Barden Pirates

Bright white clouds dotted the blue sky as the sun shone down on people making their way to PNC Park. The Allegheny River sparkled as it ran under Roberto Clemente Bridge, and the voice of the public address announcer echoed across the water. His words were unintelligible, but the excitement his voice elicited was palpable. The air was buzzing with anticipation as fans clad in black and yellow made their way to the ticket offices and through the gates. The ones who had already made it to their seats cheered for their Pirates as pregame introductions began.

The loudest cheer came at the very end of the Pirates lineup, a roar so booming that it carried through the air across the bridge and was heard from blocks away.

It was 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 11. Paul Skenes had just been introduced as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starter.

The 21-year old right-hander, selected No. 1 overall by the Pirates in the 2023 MLB Draft, found out he would be making his Major League debut just days before, but you would never know it from his demeanor on the mound. He jogged out of the dugout, glove on hand and hat on head, making sure to skip over the third-base line as he headed to the mound. Eagle-eyed fans quickly spotted the No. 30 on his back and began the cheers that would soon echo all around the park as the pitcher warmed up.

Those cheers only grew as Skenes took the mound to begin arguably the most highly anticipated MLB pitching debut since Stephen Strasburg in 2010. Any fan that wasn’t in their seat raced to the closest railing they could find to peer onto the field and witness history.

They were treated to a 101 mph fastball for their efforts. It was a ball. The cheers died down a little bit. Six pitches later, they were back, and they were deafening.

It was 4:08 p.m., and Paul Skenes had just recorded his first Major League strikeout.

It only took him three more pitches to post his second strikeout, two of them baffling Chicago Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki so much so that all Suzuki could do was shake his head. After walking Cody Bellinger, Skenes drew a flyout to close his first inning as a Major Leaguer. Pirates fans were elated.

Skenes’ second inning drew a bit more concern as a walk, a hit batter and a single loaded the bases with one out. A strikeout -- featuring more triple-digit fastballs -- eased the fans’ worries, and they rose to their feet as Skenes worked a 2-2 count with one more out to go. He forced a groundout to second base and PNC Park erupted.

“This is the loudest it’s been here in a long time,” a fan commented.

Skenes Gatemen 1

The following innings featured more of the same; baffling fastballs, a “splinker” (a hybrid of a sinker and a splitter) that moves like nothing else, appropriately timed offspeed pitches and a hyper-focused pitcher who looked like he was right where he belonged.

In the fifth inning, after allowing back-to-back base hits, Skenes headed to the dugout to a standing ovation.

It was 5:23 p.m., and Paul Skenes had just become a part of history.

His fastest pitch clocked in at 101.9 mph, the fastest to come from a Pirates pitcher since 2008 when MLB first started tracking pitch speeds. Skenes touched 100 mph nine times in the first inning and finished with 17 total pitches hitting at least 100 mph, tied for third most by any pitcher in his season debut since 2008. Skenes also became the first Pirates pitcher aged 21 or younger to record at least seven strikeouts in his MLB debut since Nick Maddox (11) in 1907.

Skenes’ final line read three earned runs, seven strikeouts, six hits and two walks in four innings pitched. He threw 84 pitches, 54 for strikes. The rookie’s performance earned high praise in and around the league, as Joey Votto compared his pitches to those of Strasburg, and ESPN's Jeff Passan saw similarities to Jacob deGrom.

“When DeGrom was at his best, when he was going out there, you had to watch him because it was so good,” Passan said on the Pat McAfee Show.

While there are a significant amount of similarities between Strasburg, deGrom and Skenes in a variety of categories, Skenes stands alone in one: he is the only one of the three to have played in the Cape Cod Baseball League.

Skenes played for the Wareham Gatemen in 2021, and while he only appeared in five games, he is still fully accepted as part of the Gatemen community. He pitched a total of eight innings, posting 11 strikeouts while giving up 12 hits and five walks to finish with a 5.62 ERA. As one of the nation’s top two-way players at the time, he also took up residence in the batter’s box, posting two hits and one walk in 14 at-bats for a .143 batting average.

Like so many players before and after him, Skenes’ biggest goal when he was in Cape Cod was to make it to the next level. In achieving that goal, he has provided inspiration for a plethora of players all around the country -- and showed that even if you only play in the CCBL for a couple weeks, you could still make it to the show.

(Top Photo Credit: Harrison Barden/Pittsburgh Pirates)