CINCINNATI -- Shortly after Gerrit Cole finished six innings of two-run baseball against the Chicago Cubs Tuesday night, he told the media that the Pirates were past the celebratory stage after clinching a playoff berth.
"Today was business as usual," Cole said. "We still got a shot to win the NL Central and that's really what we're going for."
Consider that those words came from a 23-year-old rookie who did not debut until June 11. Cole began the season with exactly two starts above Class AA. The Pirates had scheduled Cole to start today in a game that could have decided whether they would play at home or on the road in Tuesday's wild-card game. But after they took the first two games against the Cincinnati Reds and ensured that the game would be at PNC Park, Cole's services were no longer needed. He will instead prepare to pitch behind Francisco Liriano in Tuesday's wild-card game against the Reds should something go wrong early.
Whether he pitches Tuesday or somewhere down the road should the Pirates win, he is in a good place going into the postseason. In 19 starts, Cole has pitched at least five innings in every one and allowed four runs or fewer in every one. He has not walked more than three batters in a start.
His past five starts have been particularly impressive. He has a 1.69 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 32 innings, which includes nine strikeouts and three hits in seven scoreless innings on the road against the Texas Rangers. He outdueled Yu Darvish in that start to secure the Pirates' 82nd win of the season and stop a four-game losing streak, including three clunkers against the Cardinals in St. Louis.
"Executing pitches early has been getting me in good positions and giving me opportunities to put guys away quick," Cole said. "Keeping the same delivery and not trying to do too much has allowed me to execute pitches later in the count."
Cole is a confident pitcher who believes in himself and his abilities. It does not hurt that his abilities surpass those of most pitchers. He is now working all five pitches -- a two-seam and four-seam fastball, a slider, a changeup and a curveball. More important, he has a better sense of when to use them and which pitches will work best against certain hitters. When he loses feel for a pitch, as he did at times against the Cubs Tuesday, he adapts and uses others.
"You've got to rise to the occasion and you can't be afraid to fail, because if you are, then you don't have any confidence throwing the ball over the plate and that just doesn't work," Cole said.
The confidence displayed itself Tuesday, when Cole found himself in a bases-loaded, no-out jam. An error on a grounder allowed one run to score. Cole struck out the next two batters, calling Russell Martin to the mound to discuss how to approach pinch-hitter Luis Valbuena, and got a fly ball to end the inning.
"You don't want to be going a million miles an hour from the start, but sometimes you can kind of get jacked up and put yourself in a position to shut some things down before they can even start," Cole said.
Like so many aspects of sports, the slimmest of margins separated Cole's escape from portraying a meltdown rather than an example of skill. The fly ball flew directly into a stiff wind and died on the warning track. Another night, it might leave the park for a grand slam.
"If it's a grand slam, so be it," Cole said. "Keep going."
Cole assembled several impressive starts in spring training, but a lack of seasoning in the high minors and service time issues meant he started the season in Class AAA Indianapolis. Even so, he seemed to have an inkling that he would play a role in this season and that the season would be different from previous years.
"I think we all had this feeling that this was our year to make a splash and turn things around at the beginning," he said. "At the same time, coming out of these ruts, nothing's going to be handed to you."
Who wants to be a playoff hero?
Now that the Pirates have returned to the postseason, everyone on the playoff roster has the chance for a postseason performance that can help define a player.
Last season, Barry Zito put forth such a performance. The San Francisco Giants starter had a 4.15 ERA and allowed more hits than innings pitched in the 2012 regular season. He pitched once in the NLDS, walking four and allowing two runs in 22/3 innings. In his next start, an elimination game with the Giants trailing the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, 3-1, Zito pitched 72/3 scoreless innings to keep the Giants alive. They eventually won in seven games and won the World Series.
David Freese had a similar moment in the previous year's World Series. The Cardinals third baseman hit .348 and was named Series MVP, but his two-run triple in the ninth inning and walk-off home run in the 11th in Game 6 kept the Cardinals alive and forced Game 7. The Cardinals went on to win.
The previous Pirates player to have that type of performance? Bob Walk and Lloyd McClendon. Walk pitched a one-run complete game in Game 5 of the 1992 NLCS, and McClendon went 3 for 3 with a double and two RBIs. The Pirates, who entered the game trailing, 3-1, in the series, postponed elimination.
First Published September 29, 2013 4:00 AM