For MLB’s worst teams, a rowdy night in Louisiana brought hope for the future

Paul Skenes waited, let the pitch clock drain and stood there on the mound — glove up near his chest, eyes peering over it — while the noise built around the LSU pitcher like a crashing wave. Feet stomped against the metal bleachers. Lungs pushed and pushed. And for a moment, right at the tipping point, right when the crowd seemed at its absolute limit, Skenes looked like a statue at the center of Alex Box Stadium on Thursday night, frozen amid a heavyweight fight disguised as a baseball game.

But statues don’t throw fastballs at 100, 100, 101, 101, 100, 101, 102, 101, 100, 101, 100 and 100 mph to start the most hyped game of the college season. Nor can a statue decide, in the heat of all those fastballs, to spin a slider for strike three, out three in the bottom of the first, zipping it past some sorry swing.

On Opening Day for Major League Baseball, Skenes, Dylan Crews and Chase Dollander — three of the top four draft prospects — shared a field in Baton Rouge. Skenes, the 6-foot-6 highlight reel, led LSU alongside Crews, the outfielder who could go first overall this summer. Dollander, a hard-throwing right-hander like Skenes, pitched for Tennessee. So for the Washington Nationals, picking second in July, there was a thud to start the season — a 7-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves — before more hope emerged down South.

The game at the Box set a school attendance record at 13,068. Among the packed stands were scouts and front-office members for many teams, a handful of them catching batting and infield practice long before first pitch. Sure, LSU won, 5-2, a score that mattered to a whole lot of people wearing purple and gold. But for fans and employees of MLB’s worst teams, the important stats were Skene’s 12 strikeouts in seven innings, Dollander’s zeros before he hit a bump in the fifth and Crews’s single off Dollander and stolen base that followed.

Every pitch was booed or cheered by the sellout crowd, then recorded in a notebook or tablet computer by evaluators. No one could look away.

“There was just no margin for error with any pitcher who was on the mound tonight,” LSU Coach Jay Johnson said. “Five pitchers took the mound. I believe all five of them can pitch in the major leagues someday.”

At the top of most draft boards, Crews, Skenes and Dollander are joined by Wyatt Langford, an outfielder from the University of Florida. On Thursday, the Nationals had Kevin Ham, a Houston-based scout, on hand. General Manager Mike Rizzo expects to see all four players at least once, as well as Mississippi shortstop Jacob Gonzalez. Before Washington makes a decision — a decision that will hinge, at least in part, on what the Pittsburgh Pirates do with the first selection — each player will be watched by many members of the front office and scouting department.

Crews, a right-handed-hitting outfielder, entered the series with a .542 batting average, .667 on-base percentage and a .988 slugging percentage through 25 games. It’s hard to post those numbers in a video game, let alone in Division I baseball. He finished Thursday 1 for 4 with a hard-hit out in the first.

Hollander, once a transfer from Georgia Southern, worked in and out of trouble for four innings, holding the Tigers to one hit. But in the fifth, he misplaced a 96-mph fastball, and Gavin Dugas rocked it for a two-run homer. The ball disappeared into the night, leaving the press box without an estimated distance. Hollander often pitched backward to LSU’s hitters, mixing his slider, change-up and a looping curve to set up a fastball that sat between 96 and 98 mph with wavering command.

His final line: 4⅔ innings, four hits, two earned runs, three walks and three strikeouts on 89 pitches. His season line: a 3.92 ERA with 56 strikeouts and 11 walks in 39 innings.

“No doubt in my mind he’s going to be a big leaguer,” Skenes said of Dollander. “That’s why 13,000 people came out today. That was really cool.”

Of course, they came for Skenes, too. He has only been the country’s best pitcher this year.

The 107-pitch performance trimmed his season ERA to 0.81. The night he started at 7:03 p.m. He had recorded a three-pitch strikeout before the clock turned to 7:04. Skenes was still pumping 98, even touching 99, as he polished off his outing. He has 83 strikeouts to eight walks in 44⅓ innings. After throwing 12 straight fastballs to start against Tennessee, he showed off his plus slider and what may also be a plus change-up. Having those three pitches, one scout explained Thursday, is why he could “probably pitch in some major league rotations right now.”

Just a few months ago, LSU-Tennessee was all about Crews facing the 6-foot-2 Hollander. They were the consensus top two draft prospects. Skenes, though on the radar of teams and scouting sites, was a former two-way player at Air Force who generated little interest coming out of El Toro High in Southern California. He has since crashed the scene.

This draft is loaded at the top — and a potential boon for the Pirates, Nationals, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers — because the coronavirus pandemic hit when Crews, Skenes and Dollander were seniors in high school, funneling elite talent to college instead of the pros. A five-round draft didn’t offer the opportunity they expected when that year began. Take it from their high school coaches.

Jeff Perez, who had Crews at Lake Mary High near Orlando: “Being a top guy, with all the attention on him then, he had put a bit of pressure on himself, I think. But he was just hitting his stride again when his senior year shut down because of covid. He may not make it to LSU if that doesn’t happen.”

David Barnes, who had Dollander at Greenbrier High in Evans, Ga.: “He had a huge velo jump going into his senior season, started throwing 96. If we keep playing, he almost certainly doesn’t go to college. The Pirates were coming around. The Rangers were coming around. Then poof.”

And Mike Gonzales, who had Skenes at El Toro: “He was not a name or a big-time recruit. But the way he looked in his first four or so starts that year … man, he was going to take off.”

“Seeing them all in the same game — and particularly seeing Skenes and Dollander trade innings — was big for all the teams that came,” said an American League scout, who spoke anonymously because his team does not allow him to do interviews. “Hollander was the guy at the start of the year. So when you’re looking at him and Skenes, you maybe ask yourself: ‘Is there any recency bias? Do I think more highly of Skenes because he’s newer to the scene than Hollander, who’s been getting prodded since he really broke out last year?’ You want clarity wherever and whenever and however you can get it.”

Did he find any Thursday, then?

“Well, there’s no recency bias with Paul Skenes,” the scout said at night’s end. “He’s the real f—ing deal.”

One game doesn’t nudge a player above another. And only at LSU on Thursday, where any breeze could pick up the scent of crawfish, where the clouds were scarce and tattered, the sky an utter blue, could 98 be overshadowed by 101 or Crews slip into the backdrop of a dramatic win.

That much was possible with Skenes, Crews and Dollander playing within the same chalk lines. Now imagine how the Nationals and Pirates must feel.

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