BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — When 6-foot-6, 247-pound right-hander Paul Skenes steps on the mound at LSU’s Alex Box Stadium — as he will this weekend in the NCAA baseball tournament — sellout crowds 13,000 strong buzz with anticipation of 100 mph fastballs and strikeouts galore.
Taking in that scene from center field is Dylan Crews, who might be even more coveted by Major League Baseball teams than his fire-balling teammate.
Crews, hitting .420 and named the SEC player of the year, is the consensus top prospect in this year’s MLB amateur draft, which will be held in Las Vegas from July 9-11. Next is Skenes (10-2), who leads the nation with 167 strikeouts and was named SEC pitcher of the year. If they are the first two drafted, it will be the first time the top two picks came from the same college baseball team.
Crews embraces the hype.
“I love it. It’s what I’ve worked for every day, really,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Every time I come to the field, I just know that somebody is always there to kind of watch me and Paul. So, it’s a good feeling.”
Pittsburgh currently holds the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, followed by Washington and Detroit.
Crews has had years to get used to the attention. He was a prominent MLB prospect while at Lake Mary High School in Florida in 2020.
He opted for college because he “wanted to be the best player that I could be leading up to the draft. And I felt like, at the time, I wasn’t.”
“A lot of people think that college is like, not a good route” for top high school-age prospects, Crews added. “I think kids don’t realize college is an unbelievable experience, you know? So, I took a different route.”
In LSU, Crews saw a place where he could develop lifelong ties, where he could always come back — and give back.
Already, he provides tickets to special needs children and embraces chances to connect with fans because it “lets people see a different side of you.”
The majors seemed like more of a long shot to Skenes during high school in Lake Forest, California.
While he could throw in the mid-90s as a senior, that hardly guaranteed big-league success. Having thrived academically, and following the example of uncles who had joined the Navy and Coast Guard, he chose to enroll at the Air Force Academy.
“I wanted to serve. I wanted to have a guaranteed job after college,” Skenes said. “I was like, ‘I want to play four more years in college … and have a really cool job and fly $100 million jets.’”
Skenes didn’t specialize in pitching until he transferred to LSU last summer. At Air Force, he also was a designated hitter, catcher and first baseman. He received the 2022 John Olerud Award as college baseball’s top two-way player. But as got he stronger and threw harder, Skenes reached a crossroads: remain at Air Force “and kind of bite the bullet there, or leave” and try to maximize his pitching potential
Around that time, LSU coach Jay Johnson lured pitching coach Wes Johnson to his staff from the Minnesota Twins.
“If he weren’t here, I don’t think I would have come,” Skenes said, crediting Wes Johnson for improving his slider with a new grip and a quicker unwinding of his body, creating more lateral break.
Jay Johnson called Skenes’ slider “a major league put-away pitch right now.” He calls Skenes’ mechanics “flawless,” and notes how he hides the ball during his windup, further reducing hitters’ reaction time.
“He keeps it behind his body and then — boom — it’s on you,” Johnson said.
ESPN college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson said Skenes has been the most dominant college pitcher since Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State in 2009, and might challenge former LSU great Ben McDonald’s 1989 NCAA record of 202 strikeouts in a season.
“If they keep playing on, I think he will,” Peterson said.
One hitter even Skenes found difficult to face is Crews, who homered when they played against each other in 2021.
“He’s just such a tough out,” Skenes said of Crews, whom he also faced in practice games last fall. “For a guy in his position, it can be really easy to get outside of yourself and try to chase hits … and he just doesn’t.”
Crews, who said he can read spin right out of a pitcher’s hand, has walked 58 times in 207 at-bats. His 87 hits include 15 home runs and 13 doubles.
Jay Johnson recalled telling Crews, “If you want to be exceptional, you can’t try to do too much and you’re going to have to be patient” and take a lot of pitches.
Crews was on board.
“What takes hitters to the next level is their plate discipline,” he said. “If I can control that the best of my ability, then, you know, I think that’s just a separator for my game.”
LSU (43-15) is a No. 5 national seed in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers open against Tulane on Friday. Five more victories get them to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
“The goal for us is not Omaha. It’s to win it all, because that’s the expectation here,” Skenes said, referring to LSU’s six national titles since 1991. “I wouldn’t even say that’s at the back of our minds. It’s at the front.”
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