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Pirates' Cole continues slump with loss to Astros

| Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, 3:45 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
The Astros' Marwin Gonzalez slides into third base with a triple next to the Pirates' Sean Rodriguez during the fourth inning Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Starling Marte breaks his bat on a ground out during the fourth inning against the Astros Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Gregory Polanco strikes out to end the game next to Astros catcher Evan Gattis Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Gregory Polanco cools off in the dugout during a game 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 second baseman Josh Harrison avoids a collision with first baseman Josh Bell on an infield fly during the first inning against the Astros 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
The Astros' Evan Gattis celebrates his two-run homer with Carlos Correa during the second inning against the Pirates Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Gregory Polanco triples during the seventh inning against the Astros 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.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer rounds the bases past third base coach Rick Sofield after homering against the Astros Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at PNC Park.

The most common and elementary advice pitchers receive, usually unsolicited, is to throw strikes. Simple. Just throw strikes.

It comes freely from everywhere, fans especially. But the task usually is more complicated than simply not walking anybody.

Avoiding home runs and other big hits are important, too, and it is here that Gerrit Cole has been running into trouble.

The Pirates right-hander had excellent control Wednesday. He walked one of the Houston Astros he faced at PNC Park.

The problem were the pitches, all in the strike zone but improperly located, the Astros converted into a home run, a triple and two doubles in Cole's five innings. Nearly all figured in another abbreviated start for the once-presumed ace, and a 5-4 loss that sent the Pirates to Milwaukee with five losses during a six-game homestand.

“It's like every time I didn't get to the spot, I got burned,” said a perplexed if not puzzled Cole after a fourth straight outing ended earlier than planned. “But when I was able to get it there, I had some good success. I had some broken bats and got some ground balls and some weak fly balls. But I'm just getting killed when I miss. ... You miss over the plate, and I'm just getting punished.”

The first perpetrator was Evan Gattis, who hit a 413-foot home run into the center field shrubbery in the second inning after Carlos Correa singled. That staked the Astros to a 2-0 lead.

Jordy Mercer's solo homer for the Pirates halved the Houston lead, but Correa led off the fourth with a single and with one out, Marwin Gonzalez ripped a triple to the right-center gap to make it 3-1.

George Springer singled to lead off the Houston fifth. Alex Bregman's bullet down the third base line bounced high off the bag and became a double. Two long sacrifice flies later the Astros led 5-1 — just enough of a lead to hold off a Pirates' comeback.

Cole (7-9), who struck out four, was charged with five runs and seven hits in his five innings. In his past four starts, he has yielded 18 runs (17 earned) in 21 23 innings, inflating his ERA from 2.73 to 3.55.

“I hate to sound simplistic, but (Cole's) overall command is coming and going,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “The replays they show on the big board, you see balls elevated in the middle of the plate. Then you see some sequences that are sharp. We're not getting the ball in the areas we want to get it with the consistency we need to.”

Hurdle added, “Right now, you could probably say he's wild in the strike zone.”

Much was expected from Cole this season, especially from himself, after he made the All-Star team in 2015 as the certified anchor of the rotation. He started strong but left a game after two innings June 10 with what turned out to be strained right triceps. He spent more than a month on the disabled list.

Cole had a rocky return outing, but settled down. He pitched well in three straight starts before hitting his current skid. Hurdle was asked if he believed the injury still posed a problem. He responded that he does not have that “information” and it is not a “hot topic.”

“He's out there pouring everything he can, the work in-between,” Hurdle said. “When he's getting on the mound, it's only one walk, four punchouts. But the misfires within the zone, most of them are elevated and most of them are middle.”

Hurdle said he liked how his club “kept scratching and clawing” in the game and again praised Gregory Polanco, who had two more hits, drove in two more runs and went 10 for 24 during the mostly dismal homestand.

But the central issue remained Cole, who, however strange it might sound, is the most underperforming member of an improving starting rotation.

“I'm not pitching as well as I'm capable of,” he said. “At the same time, one bad pitch seems to, you know, I just don't get away with it.”

Bob Cohn is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib

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