Pirates' Cole is riding a most epic wave



BRADENTON, Fla. -- Around 1 p.m. in Newport Beach, Calif., the wind shifts and blows offshore. That's when the waves get good, and the beach is empty because everybody is at work.

Gerrit Cole likes living on the beach. He leaves his house and hits the water to surf when everyone else hits the office. "And nobody's out there," Cole said.

"I like to go out when it's big, because it's not easy for those little small waves to get this big-ass body moving."

Cole has found another place where nobody's out there, another place where he likes to go out when it's big, another place that gets his 6-foot-4, 240-pound, big-ass body moving. Standing on a major league mound rids him of concerns about impressing scouts, about impressing the Pirates' front office, about questions concerning his strikeout rate, about his prospect status. The major league mound simplifies his mission: Win the game by any means necessary. The scale of the stage, the importance of the game, becomes irrelevant. How?

"Because I enjoy it. Because I'm not scared of it," Cole said, and here he became animated, passionate. "You never want to be in a bases-loaded, no-outs position, but dammit, when you're there, you better enjoy it. You better not sit there and sulk about it. You better rise up and figure it out."

Cole has risen up and figured it out since he first set foot on a mound. He figured it out in seven scoreless innings against Cuba in the gold medal game of the World University Baseball Championship in Tokyo while pitching for Team USA in 2010. He figured it out in his major league debut, when he allowed two runs in 61/3 innings against the defending world champion San Francisco Giants. He figured it out in the playoffs, winning Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals and keeping his team in the hunt in his Game 5 start.

Yes, Game 5, as in the rubber match of the series. The Pirates handed Cole -- the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, their top prospect, the future of their rotation -- the ball. They placed their faith in a man with limitless confidence and the skills to match, a man whose intelligence and work ethic dovetail with his God-given talent.

In the 23-year-old Cole's second season in the majors, he will start the year in the rotation. Francisco Liriano is the ace, but Cole could be the horse. He'll get the ball Friday, the first game of a series against those same Cardinals at PNC Park.

It takes a unique blend of skill and self-assurance to be drafted in the first round and say no, thank you, I'll forego the millions of dollars and attend college. But that's what Cole did, eschewing the signing bonus the New York Yankees would have given him as the 28th overall pick in the 2008 draft and attending UCLA.

"I needed to grow up," Cole said. "I needed to grow up at school, I still need to grow up now."

Cole attended Orange Lutheran High School, a posh private school near Anaheim that did little to facilitate the growing-up process. His grades suffered during his freshman year at UCLA. Cole is supremely intelligent; he realized his effort needed improving. Today, he thinks back to Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Josh Vitters, all top five picks in 2007 or 2008, all more mature than he.

"My parents were going to have to sign my contract if I signed," joked Cole, who graduated high school at 17. "I couldn't even dip. I would have had whatever million dollars and I couldn't even go buy a can of tobacco at the store. I was always that guy playing up and chasing up with older guys, so I was just kind of sticking out like a sore thumb sometimes because I was just immature."

Not too immature. Cole secured an insurance policy after declining to sign with the Yankees to protect against injury, one that would equate to the bonus he would have received if he went pro. He heard of the concept from Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, also a former first-rounder out of UCLA. Cole's father helped him pay for the policy while he was in college, and when Cole agreed to an $8 million signing bonus with the Pirates, he paid it off.

Cole loves playing up, chasing the older guys. It fuels him.

"You could always see a little fire in him," said Rick Allen, the Pirates' area supervisor who scouted Cole at UCLA. "He's not afraid of anything and he expects to win and be the best. I think he's been, since he was a little kid, he's been put up on a pedestal. He's always supposed to be the guy. He's now showing that he can handle it."

Cole's world quiets down when he steps on the mound. It hasn't always been this way. In high school, at showcases, in college and in the minors, Cole felt the attention from scouts, from the media, from the baseball operations staff in the Pirates' front office. He heard the critics questioning his 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings at Class AAA Indianapolis in 2013, wondering why the strikeout rate wasn't commensurate with his pure stuff.

Then, he made his major league debut June 11 against the Giants and struck out leadoff man Gregor Blanco swinging with a 99 mph fastball.

"And it was simplified for me," Cole said. "I didn't know what to expect going into the first game, but after I let that first pitch go, and it was right where I wanted it, I was like, this is home. This is comfortable. Nobody's going to bother me out here."

Jim Benedict sat at FishBar in Manhattan Beach, Calif., watching Game 5 with Pirates scout Jim Dedrick. Benedict, one of the Pirates' special assistants to the general manager, was the advance scout for the other NLDS between the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers in case the Pirates advanced.

Benedict is a pitching specialist who has worked with Cole since Cole was drafted. He didn't watch Cole's outing in a big-picture sense; Benedict, who had intimate knowledge of the scouting report and game plan, noted Cole's fastball command and the way he reacted with men on base.

"He wants to be really good all the time," Benedict said. "Part of that is when you get a chance to do that, you find out if that's true or not, and it is for him. The guy he's facing, the team he's facing, is the enemy. And they're a problem."

It's easier to be confident with Cole's weaponry. Triple digits on the radar gun are not uncommon, but they're paired with a devastating slider and a strong changeup. Then Cole, thrust into the rotation as the Pirates made a push for their first playoff berth since 1992, set about rediscovering his curveball.

"I caught him in Indy the last start he had," catcher Tony Sanchez said.

"When I caught him in the big leagues, I was like, 'Who is this?' I know he's still Gerrit, he still had the 100 mph fastball, but then he had a hammer curveball with depth and he had a wipeout slider. Guys don't come here and use the baseballs with the smaller laces and get better, and he did."

Knowing there is no escape from the attention during the season, Cole unwinds in the winter. He spends time with his family and friends from high school and college.

In spring training, when not at the ballpark, he and his roommate, top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon, follow the cooking shows: "Bizarre Foods," "Chopped," "Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations."

At the urging of Pirates minor league starter Phil Irwin, Cole got a guitar. Cole downplayed his skill, but Taillon said Cole is really good, at times playing songs from the California band Slightly Stoopid.

Cole chose a song from another California band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Can't Stop," to take the mound in 2013. He'll stick with the West Coast this year, possibly Rage Against the Machine, maybe "Guerilla Radio." "A lot of crazy, anarchy, 'We're all going to up-rise and overthrow the government' stuff," Cole said. "That always seems to get people fired up."

The fact that Cole's girlfriend, Amy Crawford, understands his experience has helped him deal with the challenge of professional baseball. Her brother is Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, who was drafted out of UCLA in the fourth round in 2008.

"It's helped that she's familiar with the game so that, she doesn't necessarily want to talk the game with me all the time, but I can just vent a situation and she can comprehend it," Cole said.

"She's a pretty important part of it."

Taillon, who was in the Arizona Fall League last year, watched four innings of Game 5 in the clubhouse.

"Just frickin' 98 mile-an-hour heaters down and away," Taillon said. "He was just hammering down and away that game. That was awesome."

Cole approached Game 5 like he would any other outing. He has trouble sleeping the night before his starts. He arrives later than usual to the ballpark so he doesn't get too antsy. He allows time to relax. He eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He reviews the scouting report, and then, about an hour and 20 minutes before the first pitch, he begins his pregame routine.

"His eyes just ..." manager Clint Hurdle said, explaining Cole's reaction to being named the Game 5 starter ahead of A.J. Burnett, and then Hurdle's eyes widened and gleamed. "It's kind of like, 'Good.' "

"I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I was expecting it," Cole said. "I wanted the ball."

Cole allowed two runs on three hits in five innings, striking out five and walking one. Those two runs came on David Freese's home run in the second, on a hanging curveball that Cole remembers well enough to mention unprompted.

"Even days that he pitches, I've seen veteran guys that have more jitters than he does," catcher Russell Martin said. "He's got it, man. He's got it. There's no other way to put it."

Cole's catchers, teammates and coaches all describe him in similar terms. Undeniably confident. Talented.

More of a pitcher's pitcher than his fastball velocity would indicate. Tough. Demanding of himself.

Sometimes demanding to a fault. "One of our initial challenges with Gerrit was to control his emotion, control his adrenaline," general manager Neal Huntington said.

"We'll have some ups and downs along the way because he's so intense and he's really smart and he cares. Those will manifest themselves in a negative way at some point here in the future, but, right now, it's been amazing to watch his growth and development on and off the field."

Cole shows signs of understanding. After allowing three home runs in a spring training start, he talked about finding the positives in the outing. He spoke of becoming process-oriented, judging himself on preparation and execution rather than results, the same thing Benedict mentioned as an area the organization wants Cole to improve. But that internal fire isn't going anywhere.

"I always wanted to play with the older kids because they were better and it was more fun," Cole said. "It was harder, and I failed more, but it was more fun. You never want to have Yadier Molina up with the bases loaded in the World Series, but, dammit, you wouldn't want a better hitter up.

"Maybe that's not the way most people think, I don't know. That's how I think."

He wanted the older kids the same way he wants the major league mound or the big waves. They might be tougher. No matter. That's the point.

The Pirates' best ones

Gerrit Cole's early success in 2013 begged the question of who the Pirates' best first-round draft pick has been since Major League Baseball instituted the draft in 1965 -- a part of player development in which they have not always excelled. The Post-Gazette offers its top three for consideration. Will Cole one day find himself in this group?

1 Barry Bonds ... No. 6 overall in 1985. ... Made his Pirates debut May 30, 1986. He went on to hit 16 home runs -- best among NL rookies -- drive in 48 runs and steal 36 bases for a team that finished last, but he finished sixth in NL rookie of the year voting. Before leaving the Pirates in free agency after the 1992 season, he earned two NL MVPs, three Silver Slugger awards and played in two All-Star Games.

2 Andrew McCutchen ... No. 11 overall in 2005. ... Made his Pirates debut June 4, 2009. He hit in 18 of his first 20 major league games, became the 10th Pirates player to hit three homers in a game Aug. 1 and finished the season hitting .286 with 12 home runs, 54 RBIs and 22 stolen bases. He has gone on to earn the 2013 NL MVP, two Silver Slugger awards and has twice hit above .300

3 Pedro Alvarez ... No. 2 overall in 2008. ... Made his Pirates debut June 16, 2010. He hit his first home run July 3 against the Phillies and had his first multi-homer game against the Brewers July 20. He finished that first season with 16 HRs, 64 RBIs, a .256 average. In the three full seasons since, he has twice hit 30 home runs including tying for the NL lead with 36 in 2013.

Summer stock of 2013

Gerrit Cole was not alone in starring as a midseason call-up last season. Others who made their mark from Memorial Day on (with MLB debut):

Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals • May 30: Went 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA in the regular season. But it was in the playoffs (sorry, Pirates fans) where he forged his reputation, going 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA and 33 Ks in 302/3 innings.

Zack Wheeler, New York Mets • June 18: Pitched 6 shutout innings in his debut vs. Atlanta, allowing 4 hits and striking out 7. Finished the year 7-5 with 84 Ks in 100 innings before being shut down.

Sonny Gray, Oakland A's • July 10: Selected 17 picks after Gerrit Cole in the first round of the 2011 draft. Won 5 of 8 decisions while allowing just 51 hits and striking out 67 in 64 innings. Had a 2.67 ERA.

Yasiel Puig, L.A. Dodgers • June 3: Had 4 HRs and 11 RBIs in first week. Promotion jump-started Dodgers to NL West title. With him hitting .319 with 19 HRs and 42 RBIs, Dodgers went 69-38 from June 3 on.

 

 


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