Paul Skenes dominated the Giants softly. But he can't single-handedly cure Pirates.

Paul Skenes struck out as many batters in the first inning of his last outing as he did in all six innings he pitched Thursday. There was no flirtation with a no-hitter, no scramble for the record books.

Yet Skenes was nearly as effective.

Navigating six innings for the second consecutive outing, Skenes, with a slightly diminished fastball, struck out just three San Francisco Giants but gave up one run to once again put the Pittsburgh Pirates in position to win.

Unfortunately for the most exciting rookie in the game this season, the porous Pirates bullpen blew a four-run lead and what should have been the second victory in as many starts for Skenes.

He left with a 5-1 lead in a game the Giants eventually won 7-6, proving that Skenes cannot cure all that ails his ballclub.

Yet he will likely earn a longer leash and get deeper into games if he builds on the effectiveness he displayed Thursday.

Paul Skenes pitches against the Giants at PNC Park.
Paul Skenes pitches against the Giants at PNC Park.

Skenes, the No. 1 overall pick in 2023 with a fastball that touches 102 mph, did not reach that lofty velocity reading on Thursday. He topped out at 100.3 mph, and his average fastball velocity was down a tick, from 99.7 mph in his first two starts to 98.6 mph Thursday.

Even if the mild downshift wasn't intentional, it certainly led to greater efficiency.

Skenes completed six innings in 93 pitches and registered four first-pitch outs between the fourth and sixth innings, three of them on his split-finger fastball, his most effective pitch behind his heater. He threw the splitter 38% of the time, up from 29% in his first two starts as he continues deemphasizing his slider.

Thursday's outing lacked the crackle of electricity he brought to his most recent start, when he struck out the first seven Chicago Cubs of the game, retired the first 13 overall and finished with 11 punchouts in six no-hit innings. But it still showed a young pitcher less than a year removed from LSU in complete control.

Dialing it down?

A strange thing happened in the third inning Thursday: For the first time in his career, Skenes completed an inning without a strikeout. And he did the same in the fourth inning, when he allowed two baserunners but emerged unscathed.

No, Skenes won’t soon be confused with a guy who pitches to contact. But he showed he can still control at-bats without blowing batters away.

"Moving forward for him, the sky’s the limit," Joey Bart, who was catching Skenes for the first time, told reporters. "He’s going to continue to learn. Everybody’s going to expect him to dominate everybody. He’ll probably do that.

"But it’s really hard for a kid pitching in the SEC tournament this time last year. I’ve been impressed."

Skenes elicited a first-pitch comebacker from LaMonte Wade Jr. to start the fourth, so when he gave up a full-count walk to Thairo Estrada and a single to Matt Chapman, he still hadn’t fired too many pitches that inning.

And then: An RBI groundout from Jorge Soler on a 1-1 splitter, and a soft fly to left from Mike Yastrzemski on a 1-2 fastball.

That’s a 19-pitch inning in a frame he gave up damage, leaving him at a manageable 66 through four innings. He followed with an 11-pitch fifth and was at 93 pitches through six – even without the gaudy strikeout totals.

"That’s a really important point – there’s going to be so many growing moments for him," Pirates manager Derek Shelton told reporters. "This start, he has to navigate through traffic, he has to navigate through veteran hitters. It’s definitely just going to make him better."

Skenes said a lack of breaking ball command forced him to deemphasize the slider Thursday, robbing him of one wipeout weapon. But fastball-splitter was plenty, especially when eight of the 11 balls the Giants put in play were on the ground.

"You have to compete with what you have," Skenes told reporters. "The odds of them getting four singles in a row – I trust myself over any lineup. It’s just playing the odds a little bit."

Skenes' pitch count left Shelton to ponder if he’d want Skenes to see the seventh inning for the first time, given he hadn't reached the 100 pitches Skenes threw in his second start.

Shelton opted to lift him, leaving things in the hands of Pittsburgh’s bullpen. He may increasingly regret those decisions.

Pittsburgh's poisonous ’pen

Bart, the former Giant, gifted Skenes a 5-1 lead with a grand slam against his old team and Skenes left with that lead intact. But much like his debut, when a rain delay was followed by a parade of Pirates relievers issuing a walk-a-thon, Pittsburgh’s bullpen proved poisonous.

The Giants rallied for a run in the seventh and five in the eighth, when they batted around and got a three-run homer from Matt Chapman and a go-ahead single by Brett Wisely off Aroldis Chapman for a 7-6 lead. That came just hours after the Pirates blew a 5-0 lead to lose 9-5 in 10 innings on Wednesday, spoiling another solid outing from Skenes' rookie classmate Jared Jones.

"Frustrating. Very frustrating," says Shelton. "We have to finish games like that. Our bullpen has to be better."

Pittsburgh's 4.66 bullpen ERA ranks 26th in the major leagues. They also have 12 blown saves in 26 opportunities, their 53.8% conversion rate ranking in the bottom third.

True, a Skenes start is reason for celebration in Pittsburgh. But the 6-6, 235-pounder simply can’t do it all.

The Skenes effect

Still, he's undeniably a draw at PNC Park. The Pirates had averaged 12,280 fans for three midweek day games.

Thursday's attendance: 23,162, an 89% increase. Sure, some of that might have to do with an Education Day promotion, but we're guessing the greater lure was the guy with the 100-mph fastball.

Imagine how many will crash the gates once the Pirates show they can hold onto these leads. It's likely Skenes will stick around a little longer down the road.

"Wish it were a little more,' he said of his six innings. "Just had a couple long innings. It’s the game within the game, a little bit."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paul Skenes only struck out 3 Giants – a good sign for Pirates phenom