Aug. 27—ALTOONA, Pa. — The largest crowd ever to see a baseball game at Peoples Natural Gas Field turned out on Saturday night to witness the Double-A pitching debut of No. 1 overall pick Paul Skenes, but Skenes wasn’t overwhelmed by the setting.
He’s seen it all before. And more.
“The first time I pitched at (Louisiana State), there were definitely nerves. Learning from that was such a huge opportunity, not just pitching with that brand and trying to win a seventh national championship. That’s a huge opportunity. There’s pressure just inherently there,” Skenes said.
The next opportunity for Skenes is to become the ace of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff.
Saturday’s performance against Akron only showed part of the reason the ceiling is so high — the electricity of the 100-mph fastball Skenes used to strike out two in his first taste of Double-A baseball mirrored that of the energy of the crowd — but struggles with his command and three ground singles by the Rubberducks kept the 6-foot-6, 255-pound from reaching his expected two-inning start.
One of the reasons Pirates are so high on Skenes is his mental steadiness, and that was obvious when he met the media afterward.
“Adversity is not what I’d call it. A bad outing is just a bad outing. It’s just baseball. The beautiful thing is it’s never as bad as it seems and never as good as it seems,” Skenes said.
The 21-year-old righty from Fullerton, California, had a rough time keeping the strike zone, walking two to go along with a trio of seeing-eye hits before being pulled with the bases loaded in the first.
Both outs Skenes recorded were strikeouts in which he battled back from 3-1 counts.
“The impressive thing is just who he is, his demeanor, his stuff has been really fun to watch. He just got into some deep counts,” Curve pitching coach Drew Benes said.
Skenes left trailing 2-0. He eventually was charged with four runs, all earned.
The Curve got him off the hook for the decision by scoring two runs in the bottom of the first and then scoring three times in the second to take the lead in a game they eventually won, 9-8, on catcher Carter Bins’ sharp grounder off the Rubberducks’ pitcher three hours later.
“I thought he looked really good. His fastball has some good life to it. His offspeed looked good. He just missed a little bit out of the zone. It felt like he might have gotten squeezed a little bit,” Bins said of Skenes.
It was the first real adversity Skenes has encountered since turning pro. In three Single-A appearances, he only gave up one hit over four innings, fanning five and issuing no walks.
That did nothing to alter the enthusiasm Curve manager Callix Crabbe has about working with Skenes.
“How he responds to adversity will be a very big part of his learning curve. Obviously, we wanted him to have two clean innings. It didn’t work out that way, but I was impressed that, when he came off the field, he went right into the dugout, his demeanor did not change,” Crabbe said.
Perhaps that’s because of Skenes’ time at Air Force before he transferred to Louisiana State or just his personality or upbringing.
“A buddy told me to identify as Paul Skenes who plays baseball, not Paul Skenes, the baseball player,” Skenes said.
Skenes threw 33 pitches in his brief appearance, 16 of which were strikes. According to unofficial Curve press box stats, 12 of his pitches reached 99 mph, and he hit 100 twice.
Skenes’ off-night did little to dampen the crowd, many of which stuck around for postgame fireworks.
In the sixth inning, a throng of about 30 young fans ran through the concourse and bleachers in an apparent attempt to meet social media sensation Livvy Dunne. The Louisiana State gymnast recently began dating Skenes and was at the game.
“There was a buzz in the air,” Crabbe said.
The occasion drew 10,164, almost 1,000 more than the previous mark set for a game with Harrisburg in 2003. The most PNG Field had for any game was 10,116 when the Pirates visited Altoona for an exhibition in 2013.
The game was sold out days in advance. The Curve expected one of their five largest crowds in franchise history. Traffic was backed up around the Frankstown Road exit of Interstate 99 more than an hour before first pitch.
“It’s pretty exciting, all the hype we’ve gotten,” Curve General Manager Nate Bowen said. “It’s exciting to be able to showcase Altoona across the country.”
The Curve sold 800 tickets in the first 20 minutes when the game was announced and 3,000 in the first 18 hours.
Saturday night’s game was added to MLB.TV as the free game of the day; Bowen said that usually draws 40-50 thousand viewers for an average game.
Bowen has been part of the Altoona Curve organization for 11 seasons. His first game was the exhibition with Pittsburgh.
“That’s the only thing I can remember anywhere close to this,” Bowen said. “But they had the whole offseason building into that. They had like four days building into this type of event. I just haven’t really seen anything like it.”
Last year, the 50-50 program that funds Altoona Curve Charities raised $150 thousand.
On Saturday night, it raised almost $16 thousand.
The Curve have another home series coming up early next month against Harrisburg. That could match Skenes against his former Louisiana State teammate, the Senators’ Dylan Crews.
If that happens, Skenes will take it all in stride, a long stride that should have him in Pittsburgh soon if things go according to plans.
“It is cool to have an audience, wherever that is. Obviously, playing at LSU and the College World Series, you’re going to have that,” Skenes said of the record crowd. “That’s humbling. I’m glad we could give them a good game at the end.”