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Electric Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Jared Jones is piling up strikeouts and silencing doubters

 The Associated Press  |    May 4th, 2024 8:55pm EDT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jared Jones understands the plan. He totally gets that the Pittsburgh Pirates are doing what they can to protect the future — both his and theirs — by being cautious with the precocious 22-year-old’s electric right arm.

In time, the kid gloves will come off. They have to. Jones knows this. So he’s trying to stay patient while simultaneously doing everything he can to speed up the process.

Jones cleared another major hurdle Saturday, striking out 10 without a walk over seven near-perfect innings in a 1-0 victory over Colorado. He mixed a fastball that reached triple digits with a slider and change-up that left the Rockies either swinging and missing or looking back at home-plate umpire Stu Scheurwater in surprise after taking a called strike three.

Yet even more than his impeccable command, what stood out to Jones was the vote of confidence he got after he walked into the dugout following the sixth inning. A part of him expected manager Derek Shelton to come over and tell him “good job, that’s it.”

Only Shelton didn’t. Instead, Jones walked back to the mound for the seventh for the first time in his major league career.

“Obviously, I’ve had a short leash before, and that was to protect me,” Jones said. “Having him let me go out for the seventh, yeah, it pumped me up.”

Sure looked like it.

Jones fanned Brendton Doyle and Ryan McMahon then got Elias Diaz to tap Jones’ 96th and final pitch to second base for a routine ground ball to finish one of the most dominant outings by a Pittsburgh starter in recent memory.

“I think we’re seeing the full arsenal now,” Shelton said.

One that Shelton admits he didn’t necessarily see coming when Jones arrived in Bradenton for spring training. Jones, a second-round pick in 2020, had a solid season in the minors last summer but nothing that suggested the leap he’s made with remarkable ease seem imminent.

How quickly things have changed.

Jones beat out Quinn Priester and Luis Ortiz among others to earn a spot in the starting rotation and hasn’t looked back. Jones now has 52 strikeouts against just five walks across seven starts, showcasing the kind of command typically reserved for far more experienced players.

The Rockies watched a “ton of video” on Jones before facing him for the first time. Yet all they managed was a clean double down the left-field line by Diaz leading off the fifth. The other 21 batters that stepped in against Jones found themselves heading back to the dugout.

“The kid is very good and he has a great arm and he throws a lot of strikes, especially for a young pitcher who throws that hard,” Colorado manager Bud Black said.

Yet asked if he’s ever gotten into a groove like this before, Jones just shrugged.

“I’m just going out there and doing me,” he said. “I’m sure I’ve had some spurts in my career where I’ve pitched just like this.”

Maybe, but not at this level. And not this consistently. And not with so many eyes on him. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Jones has drawn comparisons to Atlanta ace Spencer Strider, though Jones is trying not to get ahead of himself.

“If you throw the ball well, people start seeing things,” he said.

And what opponents might see in the very near future is a Pittsburgh rotation anchored by Jones and 21-year-old Paul Skenes, the top overall pick in the 2023 draft who has a 0.39 ERA at Triple-A Indianapolis and looks every bit as major-league ready as Jones.

Jones, who joked he and Skenes play “too much” Fortnite together, dismissed the idea he and Skenes are trying to outdo each other with each passing start.

“I wouldn’t say it’s competitive,” he said. “I think every pitcher here wants everyone else to shove, and that’s exactly what’s going on. So it’s fun to watch him pitch, and I’m sure he feels the same way about me.”

Yasmani Grandal, who spent the last few weeks catching Skenes while on a rehab assignment before making his Pittsburgh debut behind the plate on Saturday, called Jones far from a “one-trick pony.” Ditto Skenes, who impressed Grandal with both his talent and his preparation.

“Both of those guys are pretty electric,” Grandal said.

And pretty young too, one of the reasons the Pirates are taking such a deliberate approach with both. Skenes has slowly been building up his pitch count at Indianapolis and Shelton raised eyebrows last month when he pulled Jones after five innings and 59 pitches (50 of them strikes) against the New York Mets.

General manager Ben Cherington defended the decision, stressing the organization is trying to keep its eye on the big picture and not ask too much of Jones too soon.

One person thinks Jones is already ready for more. It’s the player who spent Saturday watching Jones dot up the strike zone with alarming frequency.

“If you don’t go seven innings or more with him, it’s not a good outing,” Grandal said. “That’s how highly I think of him.”


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The Associated Press