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Paul Skenes is about to make the most anticipated debut in Pittsburgh sports history

Is my headline a bit hyperbolic?

I don’t think it is. Can you name a more anticipated debut for one of Pittsburgh’s professional athletes?

I guess you can make a case for the NHL debut of Penguins center, Mario Lemieux, on October 11, 1984, against the Bruins at the old Boston Garden. Like Skenes, Lemieux was the first pick in the draft, and he also came to town dressed as a franchise savior. He even delivered, when he scored a goal on his very first shift and on his very first shot. But it might be some revisionist’s history to call Lemieux’s debut the most anticipated in Pittsburgh sports history. Sure, he did go on to have a Hall of Fame career as one of the greatest NHL players ever, and he did turn the Penguins into a marquee franchise and Pittsburgh into a hockey town. However, the Penguins were small potatoes back in ’84.

The Pirates are small potatoes in 2024, a franchise that has only had a handful of winning seasons since 1992. But baseball has a much higher national profile than does hockey, and all eyes will be on PNC Park on Saturday at 4:05 p.m. EST when Skenes throws his first pitch against the Chicago Cubs.

That pitch will likely be 100-plus mph, and it will probably be a strike.

At least that’s what everyone is expecting from Skenes, who made seven starts and pitched 27 1/3 innings for the Pirates triple-A team in Indianapolis before his call-up. In those seven starts, Skenes posted a 0.99 ERA while giving up 17 hits, walking eight and striking out a whopping 45 batters.

I suppose you can reference Andrew McCutchen’s debut back in 2009, but while Cutch quickly became the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the spotlight didn’t seem nearly as bright for him as the one that will be shining on Skenes on Saturday afternoon. Was Gerrit Cole’s debut in 2013 memorable? It was, but even though Cole was the first pick in the MLB Draft (2011), the Pirates were already a pretty good team with McCutchen leading the way. Therefore, Cole was just a cog in the machine–albeit, an important one–during the Buccos’ first winning season and first playoff appearance in 21 years.

Skenes is expected to be Cutch, Cole and even Barry Bonds all rolled into one. Pirates fans are hungry for something, and Skenes, with his physical stature–6’6″ and 235 pounds–and his nasty arsenal of pitches that includes a fastball that averages 100 mph, has the look of someone who can be one of the most dominant pitchers in the game the moment he steps on a Major League mound.

Skenes can quickly make the Pirates legit, kinda like how Terry Bradshaw was expected to make the Steelers a formidable foe when they won a coin flip and then made him the first pick of the 1970 NFL Draft. What was the hype like for the man who was already dubbed the Blonde Bomber, thanks to his rocket of an arm? The Steelers were a sorry story for their first 40 years, so I know the expectations for Bradshaw were high, but were they as high as they are for Skenes? Since 1970 was a little before my time, and long before social media, there is no way to gauge the hype ahead of Bradshaw’s debut 54 years ago. All we know is that Bradshaw struggled from the start and felt the wrath of the fans for many years before finally putting it all together in 1974.

I suppose you can make a case for Sidney Crosby’s debut in 2005. Like Lemieux, Crosby was a first-overall pick, and he was considered to be a generational talent. But the Penguins had long since established themselves as a marquee franchise in Pittsburgh and the NHL thanks to Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and back-to-back Stanley Cups in the early-’90s. In other words, Penguins fans had already seen greatness, and they were expecting Crosby to come in and get the franchise back to that level.

That’s great pressure, but it’s different with Skenes.

I don’t think Pirates fans have ever seen a pitcher with his stuff. It’s one thing to be an ace, but it’s quite another to be the ace of baseball.

Skenes has a chance to be that guy.

You throw in social media, and everyone and their mother weighing in on Skenes and how things will go for his debut, and I’m convinced that my headline is deadly accurate.

If Paul Skenes is that way with his pitches, the headlines about him will only become more hyperbolic.


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