Starkey: Cole, history collide in St. Louis
This doesn't happen often, unless you consider once every 104 years to be often.
The last (and only) time the Pirates started a rookie pitcher on the road in a winner-take-all playoff game was Oct. 16, 1909, in Game 7 of the World Series. Babe Adams delivered, shutting out Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers, 8-0.
Now it's Gerrit Cole's chance to make history — and wouldn't he have looked right at home in a baseball game from 1909? Cole is a spit-in-the-hands, take-my-hacks, slide-spikes-first, fastball-in-your-ear kind of guy. Did you see his first pitch in Game 2? It was a speeding straight razor toward Matt Carpenter's chin, a purpose pitch that pronounced the Pirates' intention to make themselves at home after a lopsided defeat in Game 1.
“You have to give the kid a lot of credit for doing that, especially against one of the best hitters in the National League,” said pitching coach Ray Searage (another guy you'd love to cast in a remake of the 1909 World Series). “He's not intimidated. Just like Clint (Hurdle) said, ‘We respect everybody, but we fear no one.' That's what Gerrit brings.”
Searage was in fine spirits, by the way, 45 minutes after Game 4, even though an hour earlier the champagne had been wheeled out of the Pirates clubhouse and the suitcases wheeled in. Taking the ball away from A.J. Burnett — another old spirit — was painful, but giving it to Cole seems to have lent Searage and Hurdle a sense of peace.
Cole's been the best pitcher on this team since early September, or ever since he learned to trust the slower stuff that complements his blazing fastball. He's the one who sauntered into Arlington, Texas, a month ago tonight and Wyatt Earped the Rangers, outdueling Yu Darvish to break losing streaks of four games and 20 years, respectively.
Cole's also the one who made the Cardinals hitters look like Busch Leaguers in Game 2. Hurdle would never admit it, but you wonder if he had an eye toward a possible Game 5 when he pulled Cole after just six innings and 86 pitches, with a 5-1 lead.
Not that skipping Burnett's turn in the rotation was an easy choice, or particularly well-received.
“One of the toughest decisions we ever had to make, with A.J. and our feelings about him and what he's done for this club,” Searage said. “If it was at PNC Park, there would be no question about (Burnett starting).”
How did Burnett take the news?
“He's a warrior and a competitor,” Searage said. “And he didn't take it well.”
Cole's challenge is formidable. The highest-scoring team in the National League has now seen him once, a fact that has them brimming with confidence. That was the vibe emanating from their clubhouse after Game 4, anyway.
“He had good stuff last time,” said first baseman Matt Adams. “But we're going to be ready to hit him this time.”
Light-hitting shortstop Pete Kozma, who again this year has morphed into a highly annoying Bucky Dent/Denny Doyle clone, was just as pointed.
“Now we know what he has,” Kozma said. “It doesn't matter who they throw out there.”
Finally, Babe Ruth himself — Carlos Beltran — who is simply one of the great postseason hitters of all-time:
“The advantage is at least you have an idea of what he was doing to you the first time,” Beltran said. “I'm going to look fastball and adjust to the slider. … I like our chances.”
Cole's counterpart is Adam Wainwright, who knows what it's like to deliver a series close-out pitch. He's done it a few times, including Game 5 of the 2006 World Series.
Searage has cautioned Cole to focus on himself.
“He's not pitching against Wainwright, he's pitching against their lineup,” Searage said. “That's what he has to keep in mind. I'm sure he will. Both feet are on the ground. He's a confident kid.”
The safe bet is a pitching duel, but the world is filled with ruined baseball gamblers who made too many safe bets. Just last season, Wainwright and the Washington Nationals' Gio Gonzalez hooked up for what promised to be a low-scoring NLDS Game 5. Final score: 9-7.
The Pirates, in their 127-year history, have played only nine winner-take-all playoff games. Five were on the road. They won three and had a chance in all five because their starter delivered (Adams, Steve Blass twice, Jim Bibby, Doug Drabek).
So yes, this is a rare opportunity for the participants. Gather 'round and listen to Carlos Ruth, who says, “I always approach the postseason like it's time for me to go out and have fun. As a player, you don't know the next time you'll be able to play in a game like this.”
Likely not 104 years. But one never knows.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.