Ron Cook: Gerrit Cole makes early exit in a pitch for caution

Everything was terrific Friday for five innings at PNC Park. Pirates starter Gerrit Cole was cruising along with a 5-0 lead against the Philadelphia Phillies, allowing just a walk, a single and a hit batsman, looking very much like the man the Pirates deemed worthy of getting the ball in October in their biggest game in 21 years. But then, suddenly, Stolmy Pimentel was running in from the Pirates bullpen to pitch the sixth. Cole was removed from the game by manager Clint Hurdle after just 80 pitches because of what the team called "right lat soreness." It was the only bummer on a beautiful holiday when the Pirates took down the Phillies, 8-2.

Make that potential bummer.

"I don't think anybody is overly alarmed right now," Hurdle said.

That includes Cole.

"It's all good," Cole said. "There's no pain. It just started to get a little tight. We just erred on the side of caution."

That was the best news from a game in which surging Jordy Mercer drove in four runs and Andrew McCutchen continued his MVP-caliber play by coming within about 8 feet of hitting the home run he needed for just the second cycle by a Pirates hitter in Pittsburgh in 65 years.

Cole doesn't need even a minor setback. He missed four starts in June because of shoulder fatigue. This was just his second start since coming off the disabled list a week ago. That first one didn't go well; he allowed five runs in the first two innings to the New York Mets and was the loser in a 5-3 defeat.

The Pirates don't need any problem with Cole, either. They have climbed back into the National League wild-card picture by playing strong baseball, going 35-23 since May 2. Now, more than ever, they need a pitcher to step up and be the man in the rotation. Cole is the most likely candidate.

Francisco Liriano could be that guy, I suppose. He was the No. 1 starter in 2013 and won 16 games when the Pirates won 94 and made the playoffs for the first time since the 1992 season. But Liriano, who is expected off the disabled list soon after the July 14-17 All-Star break, showed nothing before his oblique injury June 10 to make you think he will be that pitcher again. He was off to a lousy start this season.

The Pirates could deal for a front-end starter before the trading deadline at the end of the month, but that hardly seems likely. You can forget about them getting involved in the bidding for Tampa Bay's David Price. The Pirates aren't going to pay his salary or give up the prospects it would take to get him. The same was true of the Chicago Cubs' Jeff Samardzija, who reportedly was traded to Oakland late Friday night. There has been speculation the Pirates might try to bring back the Phillies' A.J. Burnett, but that makes no sense. They didn't want to give him a multiyear contract after last season. Why would they want to take it on now? Burnett has been just OK this season. His 3.92 earned run average is respectable, but he leads the National League in walks.

It's going to be hard for the Pirates to get even a second-line starting pitcher at the trade deadline. There are many more buyers than sellers at this point. Twenty teams went into Friday either with the lead in their division or within five games of the second wild-card spot in each league. Good luck finding a top-line starter.

Cole could be that guy for the Pirates.

Cole needs to be that guy.

Hurdle thought enough of Cole's work last season to start him instead of Burnett against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Cole was the loser, but that hardly spoiled his rookie season. He was a big reason the Pirates made the postseason, winning 10 games after his call-up from the minors June 11.

Some were disappointed by Cole's progress this season. He took a 6-4 record and 4.02 ERA into the Friday start.

But Cole is a young pitcher who's still learning his craft. The potential for greatness clearly is there. He didn't like that start against the Mets last week.

"I think my adrenalin kind of took over and I wasn't able to execute my pitches."

But he was much happier with his performance Friday before the back tightness. "The delivery was good all day. Today felt more like myself. I just have to keep trying to repeat what I did today."

The outcome was decided by the time Cole left. The Phillies are a dreadful club. The only suspense involved McCutchen, who batted in the eighth inning against reliever B.J. Rosenberg with a cycle on the line. McCutchen hit a shot off the Clemente Wall in right field. He was able to laugh about coming so close to history after the game.

It's nice to think the Pirates will be able to smile when they check out Cole today when he arrives at the ballpark. The last thing they need is for his back to get worse.

"It feels good right now," Cole said. "I should be good to go."

That was the best news of the day, by far.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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