Phenom dominates with six no-hit innings in second MLB start

Paul Skenes needed just two starts to show Major League Baseball just how dominant he can be. And he’s still not scraping his ceiling.

Skenes struck out 11 Chicago Cubs in six no-hit innings at Wrigley Field and earned his first major league win as his Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Cubs, 9-3.

History will have to wait, however.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton lifted Skenes with a no-hitter intact, an unthinkable act in earlier eras but one of preservation in this one – and the Pirates do, in fact, have a $9.2 million signing bonus and an immeasurable amount of organizational hope tied to Skenes.

But never mind the future: The present’s already looking much sunnier with the 6-foot-6 LSU product less than a year removed from being the No. 1 pick in the draft.

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Skenes’ 100th and final pitch registered 100 mph on the radar gun, and Cubs leadoff man Michael Tauchman flailed at it for Skenes’ 11th strikeout and the final out of the sixth inning, a Pirates record for strikeouts at Wrigley Field.

In six innings, the Cubs got one ball into the air and out of the infield, Christopher Morel’s flyout to left to lead off the fifth.

Reliever Carmen Mlodzinski eventually gave up the Cubs’ first hit in the seventh. But with Skenes on the hill, the Cubs simply flailed and failed, with a series of easy grounders for his infielders to gobble wedged between the strikeouts.

And perhaps most daunting for the rest of the league is the growth Skenes showed between career start Nos. 1 and 2.

Facing the Cubs for the second time in six days, Skenes outdid his debut, during which he struck out seven in four innings and gave up three earned runs, two of them inherited runners relievers allowed to score.

Oh, he didn’t light up the radar gun quite so bright – hitting at least 100 mph 12 times in six innings compared to 17 in four innings last Saturday – but was much more effective.

Skenes switched up his pitch usage, relying almost equally on his blazing four-seam fastball (41% of pitches compared to 39%) but favoring his split-finger more this time (33%) than his debut (25%), at the expense of his slider.

‘He showed today,’ Pirates closer David Bednar told reporters, ‘he has so many different ways to get guys out.’

Getting their second look at the rookie, the Cubs looked more helpless.

Skenes struck out the first seven Cubs he faced, all but one on either the fastball or splitter, falling two shy of Pablo Lopez’s major league record for most punchouts to start a game. He did not allow a baserunner until Michael Busch drew a one-out walk on a full count in the fifth; Skenes then retired the last five men he faced.

‘I had a better idea where my fastball was going,’ Skenes told reporters of the difference between his first and second starts. ‘It’s not easy to pitch, ever, regardless of circumstances, but it’s always easier to pitch when you have fastball command.’

It was a little reminiscent of another May afternoon at Wrigley Field, the 1998 day when Kerry Wood struck out a record-tying 20 Houston Astros while allowing one hit. Wood was allowed to finish that gem.

Skenes left this one after 100 pitches, and while it was unlikely he’d find nine more outs in that arm, he did throw between 116 and 124 pitches in four of his final six starts at LSU.

But Skenes pitched just once every seven days in college; the Pirates want him to go once every fifth day, like a regular major leaguer, and have dutifully built up his workload from the minors to his two major league starts this year.

This time, he could prepare without the significant hometown hype that preceded his debut. This time, he simply had a partisan Cubs crowd of 35,372 in one of baseball’s most storied settings to take in.

‘It was extremely impressive,’ Shelton said of the outing. ‘This is a tough club to strike out. This is a good offense. He went right at them with really good stuff.

‘It’s nice to just get him in the flow of being a regular major league pitcher. This was a challenging environment.’

And in the end, an afternoon Skenes will not forget – even if there’s much more to come.

‘I think that’s something I’ll appreciate even more in the next couple days,’ Skenes told reporters. ‘Just really cool, all around. Wrigley’s awesome. Friday day game; I’d heard all about the day games at Wrigley and the vibe there.’

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