Skenes, Dollander Live Up To Hype In SEC Showdown

Image credit: Paul Skenes (Mike Janes/Four Seam)

BATON ROUGE, La.  The hype surrounding this weekend’s series between Louisiana State and Tennessee has been building since the SEC released its conference schedule six months ago. The Tigers and the Volunteers were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the Preseason Top 25 and while Tennessee has slipped a bit in the first half of this season and now ranks 11th, it did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm around this series.

Not only are LSU and Tennessee two of the most talked-about programs in the country this season, they’re also two of the most talented. Thursday’s opener especially promised a show, as LSU righthander Paul Skenes and Tennessee righthander Chase Dollander, the top two pitching prospects in this year’s draft class, squared off on the mound.

That show brought out the crowd and 13,068 fans packed into Alex Box Stadium. It was a record crowd for one of college baseball’s most storied stadiums and those fans saw a game worthy of the atmosphere.

Skenes and Dollander pumped fastballs with velocity rarely seen in college baseball. Both lineups threw punches and counterpunches. LSU center fielder Dylan Crews extend his hitting streak to 24 games. Tennessee reliever Seth Halvorsen took the baton from Dollander and showed why he too is a high-level prospect.

In the end, LSU sent the crowd home happy when it took advantage of an eighth-inning error and Jordan Thompson ripped a two-out, three-run double to give the Tigers a 5-2 victory. On a night that had a little bit of everything, the pitching will probably best stand the test of time.

“There’s just no margin for error with any pitcher that was on the mound tonight,” LSU coach Jay Johnson said. “There were five pitchers that took the mound, I believe that all five of them can pitch in the major leagues someday, our three and their two.”

“That’s the way it should be (in a series opener), two big leaguers throwing and outstanding relievers,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “Little room for error on both sides.”

Skenes and Dollander are in July expected to be the first two pitchers drafted, probably in that order and both inside the first five picks. The Pirates are likely evaluating both as potential No. 1 overall selections. It was the kind of matchup that Fridays—or, in this case, Thursdays—in the SEC are made of.

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

After holding Arkansas to one run in seven innings last week, Skenes was again dominant. He struck out 12 batters in seven innings, holding Tennessee to one run on five hits and a walk. His fastball reached 102 mph and he held upper-90s velocity throughout his outing, which lasted 107 pitches. He mixed in a wicked slider and an excellent changeup, executing pitch after pitch.

Dollander wasn’t as sharp but limited the nation’s best offense to two runs on four hits in 4.2 innings, keeping the Volunteers in the game. His fastball ran up to 98 mph and he worked in a good slider and changeup.

The matchup was worthy of all the hype. LSU pitching coach Wes Johnson, who spent the last four years in the big leagues with the Twins, said that it was an electric college matchup.

“You’re not going to see that every night, you’re not going to see that four times in a year,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve got Paul, so we get to see it every time when he takes the mound. But to see the other guy match up with him with that kind of velocity is special.”

Skenes is proving to be a truly special talent. The big righthander—he’s listed at 6-foot-6, 247 pounds—is now 5-0, 0.81 with 83 strikeouts and eight walks in 44.1 innings. Opponents are hitting just .127 against him.

Skenes is in his first season at LSU after transferring from Air Force. He was a two-time All-American as a two-way player with the Falcons and played for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. His talent was obvious in that setting. But he’s taken a leap forward in Baton Rouge for a variety of reasons—focusing full-time on pitching, having given up catching and working under the tutelage of Wes Johnson are probably the biggest—and now is dominating SEC hitters. In his first three conference starts, he is 1-0, 0.89 with 35 strikeouts and four walks in 20.1 innings.

“He’s the best pitcher there is and I’m really glad he’s here,” Jay Johnson said.

Skenes thrived on the big stage Thursday. He said it was the coolest environment he’d pitched in and credited the adrenaline he got from the crowd for his ability to hold his velocity as well as he did. He enjoyed being able to face Dollander, the reigning SEC pitcher of the year, and said he has watched all Dollander’s starts over the last two years.

But when it comes time to step on the mound, none of that is consuming Skenes.

“The biggest growth I’m seeing with Paul right now is the mindset of going pitch to pitch and understanding that each hitter is a battle, it’s not a team, it’s not the other guy,” Wes Johnson said. “(He’s thinking) ’I have to beat the hitter.’ I think he feeds more off that than what the score is or who we’re playing.”

That Johnson would single out Skenes’ mindset is especially notable, considering that Skenes has overhauled the shape of his slider and worked to improve his changeup since arriving in Baton Rouge. Both offspeed offerings have made advancements and grade out as plus pitches, with his slider being perhaps the best secondary offering in the country.

Skenes’ pure stuff and attacking mindset already made him a big challenge for opponents. An improved mentality and his consistent approach are now helping him reach the next level.

Skenes’ improvement has pushed him up draft boards and to the forefront of college baseball, making his start each week appointment viewing. The Tigers (23-3, 5-2) are happy to take that ride with him and will be hoping for several more nights like Thursday over the next three months as they set their sights on Omaha.

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