Much riding on ace Paul Skenes as Air Force opens the NCAA Tournament vs. No. 9 Texas | Sports

When you have a Paul Skenes – and not many teams do – this is the moment you envision.

Air Force baseball will play in its first NCAA Regional in 53 years against Texas’ storied program, and an ace like Skenes all but levels the playing field.

“Having Paul Skenes on the mound gives us a great opportunity to be successful,” Air Force coach Mike Kazlausky said. “It’s kind of cool to have Paul going Game 1, because he’s one of the top prospects in the country. It’s going to give us a boost of confidence. “

Skenes and the Falcons (30-27) opened their first NCAA Regional since 1969 at noon Friday against No. 9 Texas (42-19).

Air Force baseball draws familiar opponent in No. 9 Texas in first NCAA Regional since 1969

A writer from Baseball America tweeted that the Air Force “will make some noise” in the regional. A writer from D1Baseball.com added that the Falcons are “perhaps the scariest No. 4 seed in the entire tournament, ”pointing to the fact that the Air Force already defeated Texas this year and that was without Skenes on the mound.

Setting aside all the other skills Skenes brings as a hitter and catcher, there are few players in the college game more impactful to their team as a pitcher. Air Force is 12-2 in games he has started (including 10 straight wins), and 18-25 in all other games.

He is 10-2 with a 2.42 ERA and 92 strikeouts and 30 walks in 81⅔ innings. Opponents are hitting .214 against the 6-foot-6 right-hander from Lake Forest, Calif.

Skenes is one of four pitchers in the nation with 10 wins and an ERA under 2.50. The other three – Thomas Harrington of Campbell, Drew Thorpe of Cal Poly and Cooper Hjerpe of Oregon State – are ranked among the top 60 prospects for this year’s draft by MLB.com.

“With Paul Skenes on the bump, it’s unbelievable,” Air Force sophomore third baseman Jay Thomason said. “When you have a special ace like that, it really means something for the defense.”

Air Force switches two-way star Paul Skenes from bullpen to Friday night starter

Skenes opened the Mountain West Tournament against top-seeded UNLV, which had the top batting average (.331) and the third-leading scoring offense in the nation. Skenes held the Rebels scoreless on two hits through seven innings with 10 strikeouts and exited with a 5-0 lead.

As the Falcons spent after that start, a victory in the opener is crucial in a four-team, double-elimination format that will be used again this weekend. A loss in the first game means a team must win four in a row to win the tournament. A victory means a team needs to win just two of its next three to prevail.

Or, as the Falcons did in winning their first conference title, a team can win three in a row – leaning only on their three weekend starters – and avoid the uncertainty that comes with dipping deep into the rotation.

Skenes relishes the opportunity to start the Falcons off against Texas.

“Definitely excitement,” Skenes said when asked if the pressure situation produces nerves or excitement. “I’m confident in what I have and we have. I’m just excited to throw there on Friday night against them. “

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Texas’ team batting average of .321 ranks third in NCAA Division I, and the Longhorns have slugging first baseman Ivan Melendez, who leads the nation with 29 home runs and 87 RBI while batting .406.

Texas has been to the College World Series more than any other program and is playing in its 44th NCAA Regional since the Falcons last made an appearance in 1969.

Air Force and Texas split in a pair of high-scoring games in April, but Skenes did not pitch, and neither did Texas ace Pete Hansen (10-1, 3.01 ERA).

“Texas’ Friday guy is one of the top guys in the nation,” said Air Force first baseman and Mountain West Player of the Year Sam Kulasingam. “We have one of the top guys in the nation. It will be really fun. ”

Freshman 6-foot-6 catcher Paul Skenes doing big things for the surprising Air Force baseball team

This could also potentially be Skenes’ final appearance as a pitcher for Air Force.

He opted not to address his future when asked, but it has been a question hovering over him all season. If he begins his junior year at Air Force this coming fall, he would not be permitted to leave before graduating. If he does stay, he could be drafted after his junior year, stay at the academy as a senior without playing baseball, then play professionally after graduation under the current policy. That assumes he is granted approval and the policy does not change, neither of which would be guarantees.

If Skenes opts to transfer, he could play elsewhere for one year and be eligible for the MLB Draft.

Whatever he chooses, Kazlausky said he’s been thrilled with the two years he’s had the Mountain West Co-Pitcher of the Year and MVP Tournament.

“Paul is a tremendous person,” Kazlausky said. “I will be honest with you, he’s going to have opportunities post the academy in regards to playing Major League Baseball. I’m proud of him. But he’s really big into service. He’s big into our country. He’s big into standing for our national anthem and doing things right. But for the last two years, I will tell you he’s a much better person than he is a baseball player. ”


Paul Skenes at a glance

• Rated by Baseball America in January as the No. 2 prospect in the 2023 MLB Draft.

• 10-2 with a 2.42 ERA in 81⅔ innings with 92 strikeouts.

• Batting .326 with a .426 on-base percentage and .652 slugging percentage.

• 2022 Mountain West Co-Pitcher of the Year and MVP tournament.

• 2022 Preseason All-American by Baseball America, D1Baseball.com and Collegiate Baseball News.

• 2021 College Baseball News First-Team All-American.

• 2021 Mountain West Freshman of the Year.

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