It has been more than four years since Gerrit Cole pitched out of the bullpen. It might not be long before he sees relief action again.
As the Pirates eye the postseason, there is a distinct possibility they will move Cole -- their No. 5 starter -- into the bullpen in September and October.
"Possibly later," manager Clint Hurdle said when asked if Cole might move to the bullpen this season.
Teams do not need a five-man rotation in the postseason because of the multiple days off that arise in a series. And Cole likely will not claim one of those few spots from Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke and, if healthy, Wandy Rodriguez.
Cole said he was "open" to the idea of moving to the bullpen should the Pirates make the postseason. He just wants a chance to contribute.
Hurdle said the Pirates have yet to discuss the topic at length.
"That's really a conversation that doesn't really have any legs at this time whatsoever," he said. "It's more of a thought that's popped over a couple heads, but there hasn't been any lengthy conversation."
Cole last made a relief appearance -- not counting the All-Star Futures Game in 2012 -- in 2009 while pitching for UCLA. The Bruins called on him to pitch in the 10th inning as they clung to a one-run lead against UC Irvine. But a costly error by UCLA's shortstop, one of Cole's best friends, allowed an inherited runner to score the tying run.
A wild pitch and a bloop single later, and Cole had a blown save and a loss on his resume.
Ideally, Cole said, he is a starter. But he is more concerned with the needs of this team.
"I understand my role as the fifth starter is to eat up innings," Cole said.
If those innings happen to be out of the bullpen in the postseason, so be it. He would follow a great number of young starters who moved to the bullpen in the playoffs. He could only hope to have as much success as guys like David Price and Adam Wainwright moving forward.
In the meantime, the Pirates will continue to monitor his workload.
Cole has already thrown more innings this season than any other in his professional or amateur career. He has thrown 134 between the majors and Class AAA Indianapolis. He threw 132 last year and never pitched more than 123 in college.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said in the past the Pirates don't want Cole to exceed a certain pitch count. They haven't shared that number, not even with Cole.
"I've only been told what you guys have been told," he said.
But the goal, Huntington said, is to have Cole available in the postseason. Even if it's out of the bullpen.
A slow and steady improvement
Neil Walker has sped up his offensive production by slowing things down.
Now healthy, he has found some offensive consistency in the second half of the season by making some slight adjustments at the plate that appear to be paying off.
Entering this weekend, Walker was hitting .321 since the All-Star break, almost 80 points higher than his pre-break average.
The key, Hurdle said, is not Walker's health; it's his rhythm.
"He's slowing the body down, not being so violent," Hurdle said. "Calm with the body, strong with the hands. Hitting the ball hard where it's pitched. He's been able to spray the ball, move the ball around the ballpark.
"You know when he gets that in rhythm, he's a run-producer. He's a run-scorer."
Walker has focused on his strengths. And as a switch-hitter, they differ between at-bats. As a left-handed hitter, Walker is at his best when he drives the ball up the middle. As a right-handed hitter, he needs to be more pull-conscious, he said.
His right-handed at-bats -- which were so unproductive in the first half of the season that Walker was peppered with questions about whether he should hit left-handed all the time -- are much improved since the All-Star break.
Walker took two trips to the disabled list this season -- once at the end of April after he sustained a deep cut on his hand and once in July after straining his oblique muscle on his right side.
"I just haven't got hot this year," Walker said. "With two stints on the DL, it was only a matter of time before I felt good, body-wise, and confident in the box. I'd just like to continue doing the things I'm doing now."
Though his batting average suffered from his hitting woes, Walker still found ways to produce, and his advanced metrics still rated him as an above-average offensive player as a result. Entering this weekend, his season on-base percentage (.356) was nearly 100 points higher than his season batting average (.262), a testament to his ability to be a factor even in a slump.
But all along, Walker said, he figured he would find his stroke soon enough.
"To be honest, I've hit a lot of balls hard this year," he said. "It was just a matter of time before some of them started falling."
NL Central: The week ahead
The Pirates head to the West Coast this week for a seven-game road trip against the two worst teams in the National League West.
They start a three-game series Monday against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, a stadium that has not been kind to them in recent years. Between 2010-12, the Pirates went 2-7 at Petco Park. But it might be the Padres more than it is Petco; in that same span, the Pirates are 1-8 against San Diego at PNC Park.
The Pirates then travel to San Francisco for a four-game series against the defending world champion Giants. They aren't defending their title very well, however. They entered the weekend last in the NL West standings.
Mon-Wed: @ Padres. 13th in ERA (4.21) and opp. BA (.261).
Thu-Sun: @ Giants. Were last above .500 on June 24.
Mon-Wed: @ Brewers. In midst of 13 against contenders.
Thu-Sun: vs. Braves. Swept Cardinals in Atlanta July 26-28.
Mon-Thu: vs. D'backs. Is last wild card in play here?
Fri-Sun: vs. Brewers: Hitting a woeful .227 in August.
First Published August 18, 2013 4:00 AM