Allegany Communications Sports

The irony was not lost on Friday afternoon; for under the brilliant sun at Wrigley Field, the brilliance of the sun was running second to the brilliance of the young pitcher on the mound. Yet it wasn’t the brilliance of a Chicago Cubs pitcher that had Wrigley buzzing this time. It was the brilliance of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Paul Skenes who was pitching against the Cubs … rather, owning the Cubs.

Skenes was unhittable – literally – in the second Major League start of his career and his first on the road, striking out 11 over six no-hit innings before calling it a day after 100 pitches to lead the Pirates to a 9-3 steamrolling of the Cubs.

Skenes struck out the side in both the first and the second innings, then struck out the first batter of the third inning to make it seven straight to start the game, becoming the first Pirates pitcher in the modern era (1900) to do so.

On the day, the rookie from LSU induced 22 Cubs swings and misses, threw 12 fastballs clocked at 100 mph or higher and gave up just one hard-hit ball for good measure. Skenes’ 100th and final pitch of the day clocked in at 101 mph, blowing past Mike Tauchman for his 11th strikeout before Pirates manager Derek Shelton went to the bullpen.

It was an absolutely electric performance by Skenes, the first overall pick in last year’s draft, as, beginning with his triple-digit fastball, he had all of his pitches at work – a killer slider, changeup, curve and the pitch he calls a splinker because it is a combination of a sinker and a splitter.

For many of us tuning in, the performance, not to mention the ambiance of Wrigley, brought to mind the greatness of Kerry Wood, former Cubs pitching phenom, who on May 6, 1998, in just his fifth MLB start, struck out 20 Houston Astros to tie Roger Clemens’ Major League record, allowing just an infield hit and a hit batsman for what is considered by many baseball historians to be the greatest pitching performance in big-league history.

Skenes brings to mind Wood in some aspects, though he has an inch (6-foot-6 to 6-5) and about 25 pounds (235 to 210) on Wood, in the way that he works fast and goes directly at hitters because, as did Wood, he completely trusts his stuff. And why not? When you have the stuff that Wood had and that Skenes has now, you trust it.

He also, for whatever it’s worth, reminds me of a more talented Rick Reuschel, who was a damn fine pitcher for a very long time..

“It’s a big boy throwing a heavy baseball,” Cubs outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong said of Skenes. “He does a really good job with mixing and everything. But it’s tough to hit anybody that throws 100-plus with two to three really good secondary pitches and a sinker that moves like a changeup at 95.”

Of course, ask any Cubs fan, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, sadly, did not age well, which is why it was absolutely the right thing for the Pirates to do in shutting it down for Skenes after six innings and 100 pitches – no-hitter or not.

This guy has “meal ticket” written all over him. He is not only the future of the Pirates, but he is the present as well, as a rotation of Skenes, Mitch Keller, Jared Jones and Bailey Falter are going to be tough to beat and could energize the Pirates to a postseason run should the bats ever get going even semi-consistently.

Sadly, neither Wood’s nor Prior’s arms were built for the long haul, but when Wood was on he was magic. After being named National League Rookie of the Year, Wood underwent Tommy John surgery the following year, and though he did compile a record of 86-75 with a 3.67 ERA in 14 seasons (also with Cleveland and the Yankees), his arm never regained the full strength that it had in 1998.

Prior, as well, was a can’t miss prospect, and a one-two punch of he and Wood at the top of the Cubs rotation looked formidable for years to come, as Prior went 18-6 in 2003. Yet he pitched just five seasons for the Cubs as his career was marred by injuries, but in his short prime, he was as good as there was with a mid-90s fastball, a curve and changeup.

This is why the Pirates are going to handle Paul Skenes with kid gloves. As it was with the Cubs and Wood for one brief shining moment, the Pirates are counting on Skenes for years of shining moments, and will do their best to keep each of his turns in the rotation a must-see for Pirates fans for many years to come.

It’s clear that this is how good Paul Skenes already is, and how dominant he is going to be if given the patient and wise opportunity..

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on X at @MikeBurkeMDT