What a year it has been for rookie pitchers in the National League. Miami's Jose Fernandez was shut down last week to protect his prized right arm but not before he made an impeccable case as the best of the bunch. Atlanta's Julio Teheran, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Hyun-Jin Ryu and St. Louis' Shelby Miller should play prominent roles in the postseason. Then, there's the Pirates' Gerrit Cole. He is closing fast on the others. He's pitching as if he wants the ball again and again, not just in the two or three regular-season starts he has left, but in the playoffs.
If I'm Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, I won't be afraid to give it to Cole.
Cole already started and won the Pirates' most important game of this wondrous season. The team had just been swept in a three-game series in St. Louis and had lost four in a row when it touched down in Texas to play the Rangers, a good team fighting for first place in the American League West. Cole outpitched Rangers ace Yu Darvish, throwing seven strong innings in a 1-0 win. He allowed just three hits and two walks and struck out nine.
"By far, his most dominant start," Hurdle said Saturday afternoon. "I hope he has four or five more just like it and then we can sit around and try to decide which one was best."
Cole's performance against the Chicago Cubs Saturday night at PNC Park deserves to be in that conversation. Maybe it wasn't quite in the same category as the Texas game, but it was close and it was awfully significant. Cole went seven innings and allowed just one run and five hits to get the win in the Pirates' 2-1 victory, which pulled them even again atop the National League Central with the Cardinals and reduced their magic number to clinch a playoff spot to seven.
"That was way better than pretty good," Hurdle said. "The kid is establishing himself out there."
Cole gave up a single, a walk and a run-scoring double to the Cubs' Nate Schierholtz in the first inning, then was virtually unhittable. He struck out the side in the third. He struck out Cubs sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Schierholtz in the sixth. He ran into trouble in the seventh but was up to that challenge.
"He got into a hornets' nest," Hurdle said. "You saw that young man go to work."
The score was 1-1 when Cole allowed the first two batters in the seventh to get on base with a walk and a single. After a sacrifice bunt, he struck out pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro with a 96-mph fastball and got Starlin Castro to bounce out to short with his 101st and final pitch.
It was Cole's sixth consecutive outstanding start. His ERA is those games was 2.29. He has been every bit as consistent as front-line starters Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett.
"He's grown," Hurdle said. "He pays attention. He competes. He's shown up big-time."
It's hard not to keep going back to that start against the Rangers.
"It was pretty cool. It was electric," Hurdle said. "I'm watching it, thinking, 'This is a show-and-go game right here.'
"He was able to buy a little real estate for himself that night."
Something else, too.
"A little street cred," Hurdle said.
Around the National League, sure.
But also in the Pirates clubhouse.
Cole is a former No. 1 overall pick and an $8 million bonus baby, but it never hurts to show your teammates you have what it takes to win a big ballgame.
Cole showed it again Saturday.
Give Pirates management a little credit for pulling back Cole in August to ease his workload. Twice, he went eight days between starts. Since then, he has been terrific.
The good news for the Pirates is they don't feel the need to shut down Cole the way the Marlins did Fernandez. He has pitched 1731/3 innings, counting 68 at Class AAA Indianapolis earlier this season. He has shown he can handle the load.
"He's gotten better," Hurdle said. "He's gotten stronger."
Tell me, why should Hurdle be afraid to give Cole the ball in a playoff game?
There is no reason for Hurdle not to do it.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published September 15, 2013 4:00 AM