Pirates starter Gerrit Cole made a strong first impression Tuesday night.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Gerrit Cole didn't make history Tuesday night. The Pirates called up phenoms before from the minor leagues. There was the redoubtable Barry Bonds in 1986. There was Jeff King, a former No. 1 overall draft choice, in 1989. There was Kris Benson, another No. 1 overall pick, in 1999. There was five-tool man Andrew McCutchen in 2009. And there was slugger Pedro Alvarez in 2010.
Cole didn't even have the Pirates' best debut, although it was plenty good in their 8-2 win against the defending world champion San Francisco Giants. Benson pitched six innings and allowed just one run and two hits in a 2-1 win against the Chicago Cubs. McCutchen singled in his first at-bat against the New York Mets' Mike Pelfrey and ended up 2 for 4 with three runs scored, an RBI, a walk and a stolen base in an 11-6 win. He's still going strong, wouldn't you agree?
But the first impression that Cole made -- "You only get one," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle put it so eloquently before the game -- was different from the rest. It seemed so much more significant. All of the other touted players, from Bonds to Alvarez, joined Pirates teams that were big losers with no apparent hope of ever winning. Cole's Pirates -- we can say that now -- had the third-best record (38-26) in the National League after their win, which means they would be a playoff team if the postseason started today. Cole has a chance to be a part of something special, something even more special than just the franchise's first winning season in 21 years.
How did McCutchen put it?
"He's one of those guys who can pick up a team. He's going to bring a lot to us."
Certainly, Cole has come at the right time for the Pirates.
The team's starting pitchers had mostly decent numbers going into Tuesday night -- a 22-18 record with a 3.53 ERA -- but they had pitched the second-fewest innings in the National League. Then, earlier Tuesday, came word that starter Wandy Rodriguez was going on the disabled list with forearm tightness. He joins James McDonald and Jeanmar Gomez, starters who had been previously injured.
Hurdle gave the ball to Cole and asked, as he said he will do with all of the starters from this point forward, for at least seven innings. Cole came close, taking a shutout into the seventh before giving up two runs and calling it a night after 61/3 innings that thrilled the appreciative PNC Park crowd of 30,614, which wrapped its arms around him with a standing ovation as he walked to the dugout. Cole even drove in the first two runs of the game with a second-inning single, his first hit in his year-and-a-half as a professional ballplayer. He went 0 for 6 in the minor leagues.
Hurdle was more than satisfied.
So were the other players.
"This was definitely something we needed," McCutchen said. "He's the man. Unbelievable. Unreal, man. He was everything we expected and everything he probably expected, as well ...
"I can't say I'm surprised. Even in spring training, we knew what he had. He's good, man. He could have been with us from the start of the season."
Cole didn't start with the Pirates because management didn't want to start his arbitration clock. It's hard to knock that business decision. Of course, the brass will tell you Cole needed a bit more development at Class AAA Indianapolis. In any case, he seemed worth the wait Tuesday night.
The dominance by Cole, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, was impressive, especially with his fastball, which hit 99 mph, and his control. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 27 hitters he faced. He went to two-ball counts on just five hitters, to a three-ball count on a sixth and did not walk a batter, although he hit Gregor Blanco in the second inning. He got Marco Scutaro, a .332 hitter coming in, to chase a low-and-away breaking ball and fly out harmlessly to right field with the bases loaded in the second, the first of 13 consecutive hitters he retired before Andres Torres led off the seventh with a single. The run Torres came around to score was the first Cole allowed in 251/3 innings, going back to his time with Indianapolis.
"He pitched off his fastball," McCutchen said. "He only threw fastballs and sliders. And he pitched ahead. A lot of first-pitch strikes."
McCutchen went 2 for 3 with a double and two runs scored, but he talked as if Cole had the best at-bat of the game. The Pirates had the bases loaded in the second inning with no outs when Clint Barmes popped out to first baseman Brandon Belt in foul territory. The boos for Barmes from the big crowd turned into cheers when Cole stepped to the plate. Giants starter Tim Lincecum fooled him with a couple of sliders and put him in a hole, 0-2. But Cole hung tough, taking three consecutive balls before lining a single into the right-center gap.
"He looked like a big-league hitter, working the count like that," McCutchen said, grinning.
There were smiles all over the Pirates clubhouse after this win. Cole was the story, but he had plenty of help. The team ripped San Francisco pitching for 12 hits. Alvarez had a huge game, going 3 for 3 with a home run and three RBIs. People knock him for his .216 average, but he leads the club with 14 home runs and 37 RBIs. He has driven in 24 runs in his past 25 games. He also made a great play in the seventh inning to save a run, diving to his left to stab a shot hit by pinch-hitter Brett Pill and throwing him out.
Another Pirates starter, Charlie Morton, is expected to make his season debut Thursday night against the Giants. Morton, coming off Tommy John elbow surgery, will have to go a long way to top what Cole did.