The future ace is starting to look more and more like an ace.
Rookie starter Gerrit Cole struck out a career-high 12 batters and helped the Pirates put an end to a three-game skid with a dominant pitching performance in a 10-1 victory Thursday against the San Diego Padres at PNC Park.
It was the second time in his past three starts that Cole has put an end to a three-game slide with a stellar outing. He is looking more and more polished each time he takes the mound.
"That's a powerful outing from Gerrit," manager Clint Hurdle said.
With the win, the Pirates (88-65) will carry a one-game lead over Cincinnati into a pivotal weekend series at PNC Park against the Reds.
Last week, Cole struck out a then-career high nine in a win against Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers, helping the Pirates break a three-game losing streak. This time, he bested Ian Kennedy and the Padres (71-81) behind a dominant fastball and a healthy selection of secondary pitches that made opposing batters look as if they were standing on marbles.
"He pushed the bar up his last outing with the strikeouts, and he pushed it again today," Hurdle said. "The bar will settle a little bit. Twelve is a lot for me."
When he was called up from the minors June 11, there was some concern among outside observers that his low strikeout rate would trouble him in the majors. But since then, Cole said he has grown to understand how and when to use his secondary pitches. He has taken a little off his slider for effect, and his curveball and changeup have emerged as quality pitches.
Initially, he was content to survive outings as long as his team won. But the more he pitched, the more he wanted out of his skills.
"I didn't think I was using my stuff," Cole said. "I didn't think I was recognizing what I was using out there and what I could do to improve these tools and make them even better."
So he talked with catchers Russell Martin and John Buck and fellow pitchers A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano to try to learn how to be more effective.
The result is an outing like the one he posted Thursday, where he allowed one earned run on four hits over six innings. It's the type of performance many expected from the 23-year-old pitcher, who regularly throws a fastball in the high-90s and occasionally hits triple digits.
"If you throw that hard, you should be capable of doing that day in and day out," Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "It's good that he's got that going."
Cole's progress is especially noticeable to catcher Tony Sanchez, who frequently caught Cole with Class AAA Indianapolis earlier this season.
"I know the Gerrit Cole that is pitching right now is completely different than the Gerrit Cole I played with back in Indy," Sanchez said.
It helped that his offense arrived after sleeping through the previous three games. By the fourth inning, they already had eclipsed their scoring total from the previous 27 innings.
The Pirates finished with 14 hits and chased Kennedy from the game after 32/3 innings in which he allowed six earned runs and eight hits.
Jose Tabata, starting in left in place of Starling Marte because Marte's wife was in labor Thursday, drove in three runs, scored twice and went 2 for 3 with a walk and a hit batsman in the leadoff spot.
Neil Walker, who entered the game without a hit in the series, went 4 for 5 with three RBIs and a two-run homer that helped the Pirates crack open the game in the fourth.
"We did some things we haven't been doing," Hurdle said. "We stretched out some innings, we got some two-out hits. We connected some hits with some better at-bats, took advantage of some things. It was a feel-good game for everybody."
Though the Pirates clubbed two homers and scored 10 runs, their biggest highlight came on defense when the only thing in the balance was the final margin. Sanchez chased down a foul pop in the eighth and tumbled over the railing to the Padres dugout to make the first out of the inning.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published September 19, 2013 8:00 PM