Brink on the Pirates: Patience is a virtue

Rather than rush him back as soon as he is able, the Pirates want Gerrit Cole ready when he returns



Rare is the pitcher who falls victim to pitching too efficiently, but such was Gerrit Cole's plight after his most recent rehab start.

Cole needed only 73 pitches to complete six scoreless innings for Class AAA Indianapolis Aug. 10, during which he allowed one hit and struck out three without walking a batter. The Class AAA Indianapolis offense didn't help matters -- in a sense -- by scoring three runs in the bottom of the sixth and sending seven men to the plate, lengthening Cole's downtime.

So Cole and the Pirates agreed upon another rehab start, which took place Saturday. They intended for this one to increase his pitch count, but the continuation of the rehab stint serves two other purposes: To allow him to pitch instinctively without worry about mechanical changes because of the pain in his back, and to ensure he is fully healthy so as to avoid another injury.

"For me to do that, they feel more comfortable if I get another start under my belt, which I'm on board with," Cole said. "This is a team effort and it's about winning ballgames. I'm obviously at my best when I have no limitations. I'll have a full pitch count, a full nine innings [when he returns], just go out and get the job done."

Cole most recently pitched in the majors July 4, when tightness in the right latissimus dorsi muscle in his back forced him out of the game early. The Pirates placed him on the disabled list for the second time this season, after an earlier stint because of fatigue in his right shoulder.

Not lost on Cole, a promising 23-year-old in his second major league season, is the increasing frequency with which pitchers damage the ulnar collateral ligament in their elbows and require Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. Increased stress on the elbow can cause it to tear or rupture, and overcompensation for an injury in another part of the body can create that increased stress.

"I think especially the initial decision that we made to start the second [DL] stint was a precautionary thing, to not get in a position where you're overcompensating," Cole said.

Thus, the extended rehab process. Cole started for Indianapolis July 28 and pitched well, striking out seven in five innings. Rather than make another start right away, he and the Pirates opted for a bullpen session, which would better allow him to hone in on specific aspects of his delivery.

"There's so many things you focus on when you're coming back: Am I healthy, what do my mechanics look like," Cole said. "To take a step back and really nail a couple things before we take another step forward is important."

Then came a second rehab start, this one featuring 10 hits and five runs allowed in 41/3 innings. He needed one fewer pitch to complete his most recent six-inning outing than he did that day.

In addition to avoiding further injury, Cole's deliberate recovery process is intended to return him to the Pirates rotation unencumbered by doubts about his health. The Pirates want him to fully rediscover his form in the minors, rather than in a pennant race.

"These games are important," Cole said.

"Rosters expand a couple weeks from now. It's about putting your team in the best position to win."

Snider finds groove

In the lineup due to injury issues the Pirates would rather not deal with, Travis Snider has made good on his chance to play.

Andrew McCutchen's move to the DL requires Starling Marte to play center field. That would allow Josh Harrison to take over in left, but Pedro Alvarez's removal from third base due to his throwing issues means Harrison's services are usually needed there.

Snider has played the majority of left field since the beginning of the month, in which time he has a .561 slugging percentage and 10 RBIs.

"He's provided us with offense, which is what we've looked for from a number of different people in Andrew's absence," manager Clint Hurdle said. " ... The bat production, the driving in runs and scoring runs, it's given us a shot in the arm at a very important time."

The improvement started in July. Snider, who entered that month with a .651 on-base plus slugging percentage and seven extra-base hits for the season, hit .393 with a .452 on-base percentage and three home runs in 18 July games.

"After being a part of a winning team and a winning organization last season, I really learned a lot, even being on the bench late in the postseason, watching the veterans work," Snider said. "It's something that has had a trickle-down effect throughout this whole clubhouse."

There was a moment in spring training when catcher Russell Martin looked Jared Hughes square in the eye and gave him a piece of advice that launched his season: Trust your breaking ball.

As the weeks, and now months, have unfolded, Hughes has morphed into a high-leverage pitcher for the Pirates, based partially on the advancement of his slider.

His bread-and-butter pitch will always be the sinker, but it has played better because of his breaking ball.

"I think that was a big moment in time," Hughes said, recalling the conversation. "[Martin] said, 'Hey man that's a good pitch, just throw it with confidence. You need to have confidence in that pitch. If you can go out there and throw that slider with confidence, it's going to make it really difficult for guys to cheat with your sinker.' Because it moves in the opposite direction."

Hughes is using the slider at a similar rate as he did in 2013 (12.6 percent), according to data compiled by Fangraphs.

It's simply playing better, figures manager Clint Hurdle.

"It's the command of the sinker. He does pitch inside so people don't get comfortable to both sides of the plate," Hurdle said. "But actually his breaking ball showed up probably the best. It's the best breaking ball we've seen him have, the best slider."

Hughes was solid in 2012, but took a step backward in 2013 when he compiled his career worst ERA in part because he was coming off an injury.

He said he spoke at length with pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas and came up with a plan to adjust.

This season, Hughes has a career-best 1.94 ERA in 461/3 innings pitched, and a career-best WHIP of 1.122.

"I didn't pitch very well last year," Hughes said. "I looked back, listened to what Ray and [Rojas] told me and I really made some adjustments. It's a constant game of learning."

It has paid dividends.

"It seems like every year we've had a go-to guy for the bases loaded," Hurdle said. "Jared has turned out to be that guy a little bit more than anybody else this year."

The Pirates have faced a double whammy this past week playing without Andrew McCutchen (fractured rib) and Neil Walker (back tightness).

Beyond the obvious production and defensive play lost from two of the team's marquee players, neither was placed on the disabled list during the team's series against the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres.

That left a short bench for Hurdle to work with. He was diplomatic when fielding questions about the challenges.

"It presents," he said, then paused, "some different challenges."

Different? Certainly. More like difficult.

Thursday, he had his backup catcher and two left-handers in first baseman Ike Davis and outfielder Travis Snider on the bench heading into the game.

The bright side of that?

"There's a lot of players in here who have been doing it all year off the bench," Davis said. "Now that you get a chance to play. Who knows what could happen?"

Hurdle said it has been the team's way this season to battle on.

"We focus on who we have, not on who we don't have," Hurdle said. "We focus on meeting the demands of the game. ... They are collectively a very cohesive group and we just battle."

Looking ahead

On July 28, after winning their third game in a row, the Atlanta Braves were 10 games above .500 and one-half game back of the Washington Nationals in the National League East. An eight-game losing streak in the beginning of August widened that gap, and the Braves enter this week's series against the Pirates at PNC Park trailing in the wild-card race as well as the division. B.J. Upton's .114 average and .225 on-base percentage in August entering the weekend have not helped, though his struggles have spanned the length of the season. Starter Mike Minor has a 6.75 ERA since July 1 and had allowed 23 earned runs in 271/3 innings in his past five starts.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.


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