St. Louis Cardinals rookie phenom Michael Wacha set the bar at an extraordinary height Monday when he easily stared down Pirates hitters, their boisterous fans at PNC Park and a national television audience with his team facing elimination in the National League Division Series.
Can Pirates rookie phenom Gerrit Cole top Wacha in the winner-take-all Game 5 Wednesday night in St. Louis?
Absolutely, it says here.
That doesn't mean Cole will throw a perfect game for five innings and a no-hitter for 71/3 innings as Wacha did against the Pirates in a 2-1 win in Game 4. It doesn't mean he will allow just one run and one hit, again as Wacha did, both coming from just one mighty swing of Pedro Alvarez's bat, a monster home run to right-center field in the eighth inning.
But Cole is plenty good enough to beat the Cardinals at Busch Stadium; he pitched six strong innings to get the win in Game 2 of the series, a day after the Pirates were blown out in Game 1 and looking as if they would be a quick out in their first postseason in 21 years. Cole is plenty good enough to beat Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright; he outpitched the Texas Rangers' great Yu Darvish Sept. 9 in Arlington, Texas, to win the Pirates' most important game of the regular season, 1-0, and end a four-game losing streak.
The stage won't be too big or too bright for Cole.
"He relishes those moments," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said after learning Cole was getting the Game 5 start. "You can see him lock in. He only gets better as the pressure is turned up."
Cole is an awesome competitor. You can see that on the mound. You even can see it at the plate. The Cardinals walked Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer intentionally with two outs in the second inning of Game 2 to face Cole, who singled in the first run in the 7-1 win. Cole isn't just a pitcher or even a baseball player. He's an athlete.
That's a good thing.
The way Pirates hitters struggled against Wainwright in Game 1 -- one run and three hits in seven innings, the run coming, like Monday, on an Alvarez home run -- Cole might have to get a hit or two Wednesday night.
Earlier this season, Cole talked of how much he loved pitching against Miami's Jose Fernandez, who is a lock to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. They matched up twice. Cole lost the first game, a tough 3-2 decision, and got a no-decision in a Pirates win in the second.
You can bet Cole will be eager to outdo Wacha. The only way he can do that is to outpitch Wainwright, who's always a National League Cy Young Award contender.
The Pirates still probably are amazed by what Wacha did to them. The big PNC Park crowd chanted his name, much the way it directed "Qway-toe!" chants at Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto in the National League wild-card game last week.
This time, it didn't work.
"The place was loud. My ears are still ringing," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "The kid stayed the course."
"I kind of like it," Wacha said. "It kind of gives me adrenaline. I kind of use it in my favor."
That's a lot of kind ofs.
Let's be a little more definitive here:
Wacha was virtually unhittable. He struck out Marlon Byrd -- the Pirates' hottest hitter other than Alvarez -- three times.
"It's not like we said, 'Oh, no, look what he did to Marlon. We've got no chance,' " Walker said. "But when you see that, you know he has his good stuff. He was pretty damn impressive, excuse my language."
Byrd's take on Wacha?
"I feel like he's the next coming of Adam Wainwright."
Wacha needed to be that good because Pirates starter Charlie Morton threw up five zeroes before giving up a two-run home run to Matt Holliday in the sixth. That was the difference; there was a man on for Holliday's home run and none on for Alvarez's.
"I think the cowboys say he drew a tough bull today," Hurdle said of Morton.
Cole gets an equally ornery one in Wainwright.
Cole headed into the Pittsburgh night before Hurdle announced him as the Game 5 starter. There had been some speculation Hurdle might go with A.J. Burnett -- it's his turn in the rotation -- even though Burnett gave up seven third-inning runs in the 9-1 loss in Game 1 and always has been awful at Busch Stadium.
In many ways, it was easy for Hurdle to go with Cole for reasons beyond Burnett's ineffectiveness in St. Louis, where, with the Pirates, he has given up 31 runs and 37 hits over 18 innings of five starts, The kid has been so good in big games. Game 2 Friday. He stopped the Cardinals on one run and two hits. That game against Darvish in Texas. He gave up just three hits in seven innings with nine strikeouts in the Pirates' 1-0 win.
But in another way, the decision had to be brutal for Hurdle. Burnett is a respected veteran. He is the Pirates' staff leader. He deserves much credit for helping to change the losing culture in the clubhouse. He's also a prideful man. There is no other way to say it; this is a slap at his manhood.
Hurdle knows that. He also knows he has to live with Burnett, not just in these playoffs if the Pirates win Wednesday night but also next season if the team does a new deal with Burnett. Like Cole, Burnett was gone before Hurdle made the announcement.
"It's a very hard decision," Hurdle said. "It's a difficult decision because [Burnett] has meant so much and we've asked so much of him while he's been here. [Busch Stadium] has been a very challenging park for him. If this was any other venue, he would have gotten the ball."
Hurdle did the right thing.
I'm confident Cole will justify Hurdle's faith.
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 October 7, 2013 8:00 PM