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Skenes is ready to deliver on the hype as prized Pirates rookie prepares for MLB debut

Pittsburgh Pirates Paul Skenes - The Canadian Press

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Paul Skenes thought he was ready for the majors months ago.

Turns out, life doesn't work like that. Or at least the Pittsburgh Pirates didn't want it to work like that for perhaps the best pitching prospect in a generation.

“You can’t just show up in spring training and throw seven innings, even if I feel like I can,” Skenes said.

Instead, the Pirates opted to bring the top overall pick in last year's draft along slowly in hopes of protecting the 21-year-old's right arm that regularly delivers fastballs that reach triple digits. The buildup at Triple-A Indianapolis was gradual and deliberate.

Skenes understood the assignment. He embraced it as best he could across seven almost uniformly dominant starts in which he posted a 0.99 ERA, doing his best to push the wondering about when “the call” would come out of his mind.

It worked. Maybe too well.

Skenes was actually napping Wednesday when manager Miguel Perez tried to break the news Skenes was going to Pittsburgh. Perez, who's notoriously creative in finding ways to let his players know they're moving up, opted to take a more direct approach with Skenes. Fitting for a franchise eager for the future to arrive as fast as possible.

“He says, ‘Are you really gonna make me look for another pitcher on Saturday?’” Skenes said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know, am I?’ He says, ‘Yeah, you are. You’re going to the show.’”

The conversation lasted two minutes. Less than 48 sometimes frantic hours later, Skenes walked into a clubhouse at PNC Park on Friday that had a stall featuring his name and the number “30.” Skenes will make his first major league start 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 7 that night, has no recollection of it. Then again, life has come at him so fast of late that keeping track can be difficult.

Two years ago, he was a somewhat anonymous transfer from 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 really long ago and really short ago at the same time, if that makes sense,” he said. “In some ways, it flew by. In some ways, it was really long."

The buzz around the city and on social media since the announcement of Skenes' promotion has been palpable. He's trying to tune it out. Emphasis on “trying," considering his girlfriend is LSU gymnast/prominent social media influencer Livvy Dunne, who joined Skenes for his first trip to Pittsburgh as a big leaguer.

“I do my best to not see any of it, but it’s unavoidable at the same time,” he said. “You’re going to have to see some of it.”

While Skenes — who never threw more than 75 pitches in any of his starts at Indianapolis — considers his buildup “finished,” it's unlikely he's going to be allowed to go much beyond that number against the Cubs.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton stressed “it was time” for Skenes to join the Pirates because “he had checked all the boxes that we felt he needed to do in the minor leagues and he checked them very quickly.”

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

“There’s still going to be a process as we move forward,” Shelton said.

It's a process Skenes is putting his trust 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 with 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 bit easier to know that I’m not the only one that’s going through (a build up),” Skenes said. "It is frustrating to go out there and throw three innings (even though) I knew I was going to throw three innings. I knew that it was setting me up to be able to throw six, seven, eight innings in September, October this year.”

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

Pittsburgh entered the weekend in a 6-16 funk following an 11-5 start. While the offense has struggled, a starting rotation considered a question mark when the season began looks like it could be a strength thanks to Jones' emergence, the steady hand of Martin Perez and Skenes' arrival.

“I would definitely say we’re close,” Skenes said. "I think being around the team in spring training and watching the club over the past month or so, we’re close. I think there is a lot to look forward to.”

Skenes isn't afraid of the challenge that awaits. Still, he's going to try to breathe in a moment he long dreamed of but tried to put out of his mind until it finally happened.

"I definitely want to take a minute and realize how cool it is.”