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Pirates Have a Dynamic Duo, but They Need Better Support

With future aces Jared Jones and Paul Skenes being showcased, it should have been a feel-good weekend for Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Both pitched creditably enough but lately, these Pirates never fail to disappoint. On Saturday, the crowd who arrived for Skenes’s debut was the most enthusiastic PNC Park has seen since the 2013 “black-out” Wild Card Game. About 90 minutes from Skenes’s first pitch, the Bucco bullpen managed to turn the crowd ornery.

Future Aces Skenes and Jones Need Better Support

The Chicago Cubs, who are ahead of the Pirates in the National League Central Division, were in town for the weekend series. The baseball world awaited Skenes’ Saturday debut. Skenes learned he’d been called up to the big club from the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians on Thursday. He and his social media sensation girlfriend Livvy Dunne missed the flight to Pittsburgh. The Indians were in Louisville, so Skenes and Dunne hopped into his car and made the six-hour drive to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Cubs first had to get past Jones on Friday night.

Skenes and Jones and . . .

With Jones and Skenes starting back-to-back games, it was Pirates fans’ first glimpse of what the future could look like with two aces on the mound. Might they one day be thought of as the 21st-century version of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale? Or maybe Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” fame? What could their catchphrase be? Skenes and Jones and the opposition moans? Skenes and Jones and put down your phones?

The Friday game was a bad omen for how the weekend would go. Jones may not have been at his best that night, but he demonstrated that he could still pitch well enough to win under those circumstances. Jones pitched six innings, giving up two earned runs, striking out four, and walking two. An unearned run scored when catcher Yasmani Grandal dropped a relay throw. Jones exited with the Cubs leading, 3-2. His team was 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position during the first six innings. Rookie Hunter Stratton pitched the seventh, stayed in the game too long, and gave up four runs en route to a 7-2 loss.

The Big Day Arrives

On Saturday, optimism abounded, and enthusiasm was palpable in Pittsburgh. Despite steady rains all day, long lines waited to get into PNC Park for Skenes’s debut. Ordinarily, for a 4:05 game, the gates would open at 2:35. On this day, they opened at 2:00 to accommodate the large crowd. Many fans wore Skenes No. 30 jerseys, and some even wore fake Skenes-like mustaches. Skenes himself had arrived at about 12:40, dressed like a stockbroker in a dark blue suit, white shirt, and tie. Early arrivals jockeyed for position near the bullpen, hoping to watch the young phenom warm up. After watching one of their future aces, Jones, all season, Pirates fans finally got to see Skenes in action. He didn’t disappoint.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Skenes was removed from the game in the fifth inning when he reached a predetermined pitch limit. He was leading, 6-1 – the only blemish being a Nico Hoerner homer – and had two men on with no outs. He’d thrown 84 pitches, 54 for strikes, struck out seven, and reached 101.9 mph on the radar. Hard-throwing Kyle Nicolas was brought in from the pen. Nicolas was not only a curious choice for such a marquee game. He was also a head-scratching choice to even be on the roster. When space on the active roster had to be cleared for Skenes, it was believed Nicolas would return to Triple-A. Nicolas has minor league options remaining and has experienced bouts of wildness.

Instead, it was Roansy Contreras, who’s out of options, once believed to have the makings of a staff ace himself. By designating him for assignment, the Pirates risk losing him on a waiver claim or being forced to trade him. He had just pitched a scoreless inning on Friday. Regardless, Nicolas took the mound and showed that if the Pirates were going to ruin the weekend by giving poor support to their two future aces Jones and Skenes, at least they’d make it interesting by screwing up in different ways.

Lightning Strikes

Nicolas got two outs without a run scoring, then disaster struck. As ominous dark clouds rolled in, Nicolas hit a batter to load the bases and walked the next three batters. Now fans were sitting in the rain and voicing their displeasure. Josh Fleming was brought in and walked in another run. Pirates relievers had thrown 16 straight balls without a strike. Lightning flashed. Now with heavy rain pouring down, Yan Gomes hit a slow grounder to Cruz that he stopped but couldn’t turn into an out. The game was tied, 6-6. The umpires called for a rain delay.

Happy Ending, But . . .

After a rain delay of nearly three hours, the usually reliable Colin Holderman relieved and walked in two more runs on nine pitches to put the Cubs up, 8-6. Ultimately, with not many fans remaining in the stands, the Pirates won the game, 10-9, on the strength of five home runs, but not before ruining what fans should have been able to remember fondly but now will likely recall with annoyance.

The two games presented the Pirates’ season in a microcosm, in that the focus shifted from Skenes and Jones, the two future staff aces, to the lack of offense and an ineffective bullpen. The relief corps was supposed to be a strength in 2024. However, David Bednar and Aroldis Chapman haven’t been as effective as in the past. Carmen Mlodzinski and Ryan Borucki have been injured. Holderman also missed time with an injury. Sometimes, others have picked up the slack, but not often enough.

Meanwhile, something has to give with the Pirates’ offense. Recently, general manager Ben Cherington told the press that he was responsible for the offensive failures. He put the team together and brought in the players. Kudos to Cherington for being a stand-up guy, but he’s not the one swinging the bats. He couldn’t have foreseen so many players hitting so far below their career averages. He implied that Pirates fans will have to wait for these players to perform as they have in the past.

The Last Word

Still, one wonders how long Cherington will wait. With a surplus of young pitching in the organization and the Pirates hoping to contend, it might be time to trade some of that surplus for some impact hitters. The Miami Marlins are said to have virtually their entire team on the market. They’re no offensive juggernaut either, but they have players who can produce, like Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Bryan De La Cruz. Maybe a new batting coach would have a positive effect. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.


Photo Credit: © Michael Longo/For USA Today Network / USA TODAY NETWORK


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