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Paul Skenes joins Pirates for Saturday debut vs.  Cubs
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Paul Skenes joins Pirates for Saturday debut vs. Cubs

PITTSBURGH – Paul Skenes thought he was ready for the majors months ago.

It turns out that life doesn’t work that way. Or at least the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t want it to work out that way for arguably the best pitching prospect in a generation.

“You can’t just show up to spring training and throw seven innings, even though I think I can do that,” Skenes said.

Instead, the Pirates opted to take the top pick from last year’s draft slowly, hoping to protect the 21-year-old’s right arm, which regularly delivers fastballs that reach triple figures. The build-up at Triple-A Indianapolis was gradual and deliberate.

Skenes understood the assignment. He embraced it as best he could over seven almost uniformly dominant starts, during which he posted a 0.99 ERA, and did his best to push the question of when “the call” would come from his mind.

It worked. Maybe too good.

Skenes was napping Wednesday when manager Miguel Perez tried to break the news that Skenes was going to Pittsburgh. Perez, who is notoriously creative in finding ways to let his players know they are making progress, took a more direct approach with Skenes. Fitting for a franchise that wants the future to arrive as quickly as possible.

“He says, ‘Are you really going to make me look for another pitcher on Saturday?’” Skenes said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know, huh?’ He says, ‘Yes, you’re going to The Show.'”

The conversation lasted two minutes. Less than 48, sometimes hectic hours later, Skenes walked into a PNC Park clubhouse Friday with a booth with his name and the number “30” on it.

Skenes will make his first Major League start on Saturday against the Chicago Cubs, in perhaps the most anticipated pitching debut since former Washington star Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 Pirates in 2009. Skenes, who turned seven that night, has no memories of that.

On the other hand, life has been coming at him so quickly lately that it can be hard to keep track of everything.

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

It can be a lot to take in.

“Two years ago feels like a very long time ago and a very short time ago at the same time, if that makes sense,” he said. “In some ways it flew by. In some ways it took a very long time.”

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

“I do my best not to see it, but at the same time it is inevitable,” he said. “You’ll have to see something about it.”

While Skenes — who hasn’t thrown more than 75 pitches in any of his starts in Indianapolis — considers his build “complete,” it’s unlikely he’ll go much further than that number against the Cubs.

Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton emphasized 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. “

Just not fast enough for Pittsburgh to have Skenes thinking about reaching the 100-pitch mark, a number he hit in 12 of his 19 starts at LSU last year.

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

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

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

“It’s also a little easier to know that I’m not the only one going through a buildup,” Skenes said. “It’s frustrating to go out and throw three innings (even though I knew I was going to throw three innings). I knew it set me up to be able to go six, seven, eight innings in September, October of this year to throw.” years.”

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

Pittsburgh entered the weekend in a 6-16 funk after an 11-5 start. While the offense has struggled, a starting rotation that was 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 the arrival of Skenes.

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

Skenes is not afraid of the challenge that awaits him. Still, he’s going to try to breathe from a moment he’s dreamed about for so long, but tried to put out of his mind until it finally happened.

“I definitely want to take a moment and realize how cool it is.”