shohei-ohtani-vs.-paul-skenes-lives-up-to-the-hype:-‘that’s-why-we-play-the-game-…-for-matchups-like-that’

Shohei Ohtani vs. Paul Skenes lives up to the hype: ‘That’s why we play the game … for matchups like that’

Sports

PITTSBURGH — When it became clear that Pirates rookie right-hander Paul Skenes would make his fifth career big-league start against the Dodgers, it was natural to circle the game on the calendar as a definitive must-watch.

No matter who is on the mound, Dodgers first innings have become something of an event in and of themselves, considering the three MVPs atop the lineup in Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman. And with each Skenes start early in his career feeling similarly momentous, it was a perfect storm of regular-season intrigue, priming Wednesday’s contest to be a bit more special than your average weeknight game in June.

As first pitch approached, buzz was building among the PNC Park crowd eager to bear witness to Skenes showcasing his stuff against three of the best hitters on the planet.

But it’s still baseball. So many underwhelming outcomes can come from any individual plate appearance; grand visions of epic strikeouts or titanic home runs punctuating matchups between top-tier talents rarely come to fruition. Pitting two of the game’s best against each other cannot guarantee a memorable result, only set the stage for one.

But when the stars do align, and the results of these heightened plate appearances match up with the supersonic talent on said stage? You’ve got to appreciate that when it happens.

Skenes’ first pitch to Betts on Wednesday was a 101 mph fastball at the bottom of the zone for strike one. His second offering was a 101 mph fastball at the top of the zone that Betts swung through haplessly for strike two. Two pitches later, Betts flailed at a slider for strike three. The crowd erupted, not realizing it was merely an appetizer for what would come next.

In less than a minute of real time, Skenes proceeded to throw three consecutive triple-digit fastballs and yield three consecutive whiffs on three spectacularly intense swings from Ohtani. The ballpark exploded with excitement once again as Ohtani staggered back to the dugout in a daze, left to contemplate the high-octane firefight he had just lost in emphatic fashion.

Round 1 went to Skenes, who turned 22 years old last week.

While everyone in the ballpark probably would’ve loved to immediately fast-forward to the next Skenes/Ohtani at-bat, the rematch was mildly delayed. The Pirates pounced on Dodgers starter James Paxton, forcing him to depart after recording just five outs. By the time Ohtani arrived at the plate in the third inning nearly 50 minutes later, Skenes had been afforded a 7-0 lead. With the home fans enjoying a comfortable cushion, the crowd returned its focus to how Skenes would attack Ohtani in Round 2.

Again, Skenes greeted Ohtani with 100 mph, and again, Ohtani swung with significant intent to do damage, but to no avail. After Ohtani was unfazed by two changeups outside the zone for balls one and two, Skenes went back to the basics: 99.5 mph above the zone, prompting another vicious, helpless hack from Ohtani for strike two. Another 100 mph heater followed, off the inside part of the plate for ball three, producing an ever-enticing full count.

Having already yielded an astonishing five whiffs on five fastballs from one of the most dangerous fastball hitters of this generation, Skenes reared back one more time. In came 100.1 mph at the top of the strike zone. Out went a towering fly ball to straight-away center field, soaring over the 10-foot wall for a home run.

Round 2 went to Ohtani, who is leading the National League in total bases and also knows a little something about throwing 100 mph.

“Yeah, I like to call that ‘big on big,’” Skenes said afterward. “Obviously, [I] beat him a couple times earlier. And I think that was the right pitch to throw there. He’s just a pretty darn good player. So stuff like that’s gonna happen.

“And frankly, that’s why we play the game, is for matchups like that. So [I’m] not happy to give it up, but it’s part of the game.”

Reflecting on facing Skenes postgame, Ohtani offered his analysis through interpreter Will Ireton: “The stuff itself was really good. As you saw in my first at-bat, I couldn’t really put together good swings. But overall, it’s just really good stuff.

“Rather than the velo, it’s really the angle and the release [that make Skenes hard to hit], so I made the adjustment in the second at-bat.”

Ohtani’s uncanny ability to adjust on the fly, even after looking so overmatched in the first inning, was on display in his third at-bat against Skenes amid an eventful fifth inning. After rookie center fielder Andy Pages tagged Skenes for a home run to lead off the inning and Chris Taylor reached on an error, Skenes responded by striking out both Betts and Freeman looking.

Between those two K’s, Ohtani ripped a single into right field on — you guessed it — a high fastball. Although Skenes navigated out of the inning to conclude his night without further damage, Ohtani claimed the third and final round of their battle, leaving us all to wonder how Skenes will respond in their next encounter. (The Pirates visit Dodger Stadium Aug. 9-11, in case you’re curious.)

Ohtani might’ve ended the night with the upper hand between the two, but Skenes unquestionably handled the larger assignment of taming the Dodgers’ lineup and securing a series victory for Pittsburgh with the 10-6 win. His successful outing provided an exciting encore to what fellow rookie righty Jared Jones did Tuesday in the series opener, throwing six scoreless innings featuring three of his own dramatic encounters with Ohtani, all of which went Jones’ way (2 K’s and a GIDP).

A close friend of Skenes’ dating to their days playing travel ball as teenagers in Southern California, Jones wields equally electric stuff as his ultra-famous teammate, albeit without quite the exposure — at least not yet. But with the duo garnering more attention and promise with each successive outing, the future in Pittsburgh appears to be getting brighter in a hurry, and that feeling was palpable the past two nights at PNC Park.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said Wednesday. “And you know, I think when you have young players that you’ve drafted and developed like we have with [Jared] Jones, Skenes and even [Mitch] Keller, we’re seeing the fans are into it.

“It’s really fun to see this ballpark come alive.”