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Starkey: Pirates can't overcome Cole

| Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, 9:06 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole labors through the fifth inning against the Astros on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole labors through the fifth inning against the Astros on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole throws during the first inning against the Astros on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole throws during the second inning against the Astros on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.

Say this much for Gerrit Cole, who suffered a career-high ninth loss Wednesday: When reporters trekked into the clubhouse to inquire about his latest failed start, he was right there at his locker, ready to face questions.

If only someone had answers.

What is wrong with the Pirates' presumptive ace?

I asked manager Clint Hurdle what he saw from Cole in the 5-4 loss to the Houston Astros, one in which Cole lasted just five innings and gave up seven hits and five earned runs. That makes it a mind-blowing 31 hits surrendered in his past three starts.

It's a good thing Cole's contract doesn't make him give back money by the hit. He'd be broke.

Anyway, what did Hurdle see?

“It's a big question,” Hurdle said. “Anything specific?”

Well, yes: Why did he struggle again?

“His overall command is coming and going,” Hurdle said. “Balls are elevated over the middle of the plate.”

Consistency. Command. The usual stuff. Nothing injury related that anybody knows of or is willing to admit. But, wow, have things changed. The Pirates were 23-9 in Cole's starts last season. They are 8-12 this season.

Does anyone swing and miss at his stuff anymore?

Can this team possibly make the playoffs with Cole scuffling like this?

On many nights last year, Cole was simply overpowering. On many nights this year, especially during an August swoon where his ERA is 6.07, he looks like a right-handed Jeff Locke.

“I'm just getting killed when I miss,” Cole said.

The Astros did almost nothing against Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova the previous two games. The major difference Wednesday was Evan Gattis, who did not start the previous two games and made Cole wish he hadn't started this one, either.

With one on in the second — after Carlos Correa nearly hit Cole with a shot up the middle — Gattis launched a juicy fastball to the “S” in “PIRATES” in the center-field shrubbery, some 410 feet away. The boos came later, during the Astros' two-run fifth.

Cole has surrendered 41 hits in 26 23 innings this month. His flops have occurred at very bad times: with a chance to sweep a series (Reds); a chance to set up a sweep (Dodgers); a critical game against a fellow wild-card contender (Marlins); and now this, a chance to win a series against the Astros and somewhat salvage a six-game homestand that instead crashed and burned to 1-5.

Pitching coach Ray Searage was on an ESPN podcast with Buster Olney before the game and said his advice to Cole was to keep it simple.

“You set the bar so far up there that if you don't reach it every start, you think you've failed,” Searage said he told Cole. “And you're not failing.”

Actually, at this point, Cole is failing. He is failing his team badly.

Searage was right on this, though: Cole doesn't have to be lights-out dominant every time. That is unrealistic. But he does have to get deeper into games and not just “give his team a chance to win” but put it in position to win.

Right now, Cole is as big a reason as any that the Pirates are in position to lose out on a postseason bid — and the next week could be telling. First comes a trip to dreaded Miller Park, where the Pirates have lost nine straight games and are 19-68 since 2006.

Yes, 19-68.

I asked Hurdle if he has an explanation for the horrors that unfold there.

“They've played better than us,” he said. “And we're due. It's our time to do something there. It's easy to talk about. We need to go in there and play well.”

After Milwaukee comes a trip to Wrigley Field and a three-game set with the Cubs. The pitching matchup for the opener has a familiar ring to it.

Jake Arrieta versus Gerrit Cole.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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