Kovacevic: Two special talents rise above
ST. LOUIS — It takes talent to freeze Carlos Beltran with tight heat. Really does. He's among the game's premier hitters, with the ability to make a pitcher pay for anything left over the inner part of the plate.
And yet Gerrit Cole fired a 98 mph fastball Friday into Russell Martin's unflinching mitt, kissing the inside corner along the way, that silenced Busch Stadium and sent Beltran muttering back to the dugout.
Know what's a special talent?
“I wish he would have swung.”
That was Cole's reply when I asked, well after the Pirates' 7-1 slamming of the Cardinals in Game 2 of this National League Division Series, if he'd allowed himself to enjoy that moment even a little.
And this baseball babe, all of 23 years old with all of six innings postseason experience, wished Beltran would have whiffed.
It takes talent, too, to account for your team's first three runs, as Pedro Alvarez did Friday. He drove a book-rule double so hard to center that it bounded over the fence all the way up into the third row. Next time up, he took the nonstop route and cleared the same fence for a two-run shot.
Typical of Alvarez, he talked afterward about … well, anything else.
“They're a very good staff,” he said of the Cardinals. “You try to bring your A-game every single time, every single pitch, full concentration, and just try to capitalize on maybe hitting a mistake.”
Lance Lynn threw a mess of those Friday. But the previous day, Adam Wainwright was borderline pristine. And in what wound up a 9-1 rout for St. Louis, the only blemish on his line was a 435-foot blast off Alvarez's bat.
That's a special talent.
We all knew that beforehand, of course. We've watched Cole and Alvarez blossom from bonus babies atop the draft — $8 million for Cole at No. 1 overall, $6.35 million for Alvarez at No. 2 overall — then soar through the system, then establish themselves as big-league fixtures.
But maybe now the rest of the country is cluing in that these Pirates aren't some cute, cuddly collection of scrappy overachievers, as is being painted in some corners.
“I don't know how it gets portrayed on the outside, but we know the kind of talent we've got in here,” Neil Walker was saying. “It's not just those two guys. It's been going on for seven, eight years, coming up through our system, and it's here now. We know that's why we're successful because that talent is here.”
So much went so right for the Pirates in this Game 2 that essentially reversed Game 1: Cole's six sterling innings were followed by spotless relief from Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, the latter two looking as hale as we've seen in a while. Starling Marte went deep. Andrew McCutchen continued to take vicious cuts, visibly determined to step up. And yeah, Hurdle bounced back, too, from his bonehead handling of A.J. Burnett in Game 1 to smartly pull Cole after a sixth inning in which he'd clearly emptied the chamber.
But the real reason things went so right Friday wasn't any of the above or the “showering well” Hurdle cites when describing the Pirates' resiliency.
No, it was that this franchise is blessed with a couple players who can do things that most can't.
Cole is on a roll that rekindles memories of Jaret Wright and David Price and other young pitchers immediately stepping into prominent playoff roles: Over his past six starts, he has been charged with seven earned runs. He has struck out 44, walked 11. He has held opponents to a sickly .212 average. He's mixing 100 mph — a gun reading he achieved five times Friday — with a slider and a hammer curve to devastating results.
As Hurdle put it, “There's been a young, elite group of pitchers bust onto the scene, and we're fortunate to have one. We picked up some momentum when he hit the mound today.”
And when Alvarez hit the ball. Really far.
Never underestimate the singular impact he can have on a lineup once he revs it up. Pitchers have never had an answer for it.
“It's another young man we've got who continues to pave new paths,” Hurdle said. “He's turned into a major run producer and a threat every time he walks up there.”
Put those two together, sprinkle in a Cy Young-level Game 3 starter in Francisco Liriano, one of the best back-end bullpen combos in baseball and, oh, an MVP candidate, and there's nothing remotely cute or cuddly about what could come next.