Kovacevic: Cole's coronation could come ... in time
In the storied 127-year history of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club — which is to say, that portion that preceded Sid Bream being safe — this franchise, fantastically, has never had that one dominant pitcher. Of the dozen men inducted into the Hall of Fame as Pirates, all were position players. Of all the retired numbers, no different.
Quick, name the greatest pitcher this team has known.
Vern Law or Doug Drabek, the only Cy Young winners?
Bob Friend or Bob Veale, the tops in all-time strikeouts?
John Candelaria, who was Chuck Tanner's “one guy I'd pick to pitch me a Game 7?”
How about Babe Adams from a century ago?
No one leaps out, huh?
And I raise this point not to raise expectations for young Gerrit Cole, who took to a big-league mound for the first time Tuesday night at PNC Park amid no small amount of local fanfare, then turned in 6 1⁄3 solid innings — two runs, seven hits, two strikeouts — in the 8-2 flattening of the Giants.
No, I raise the above point with precisely the opposite in mind: Let's take it easy here.
Don't misunderstand. It's wonderful that Cole's debut drew an enthusiastic 30,614 on a sweet summer night, even if the Pirates had already projected a crowd of 22,000 before revealing Cole would pitch. It's even better, less tangibly, that there is ever genuine excitement about a baseball player arriving on these North Shores.
Where have you gone, Virgil Vasquez?
“He was outstanding, and he was in control,” Clint Hurdle was saying afterward. “I don't think he's surprised he got an out.”
The Giants' opening at-bat alone was a sight: 96 mph, then 97, then 98 to wipe out poor Gregor Blanco.
And hey, how about Cole's opening at-bat, the two-run single lasered in the second?
Fun stuff, all of it. And no moment better than the loud, long standing O when Hurdle took the ball in the seventh. If you didn't have goosebumps, you're probably one of the 6,000 who didn't buy a ticket.
It was electric.
As was Cole's explanation when I asked afterward how that made him feel: “I was trying not to look around because I was afraid I'd smile and ... that wouldn't be very cool.”
Should have seen the grin.
Good for Cole for soaking it all in. That's the mental toughness you want in any top athlete, and I've long felt this kid's as tough as any ballplayer I've covered.
Pittsburgh, you are going to love him.
That said, all these Stephen Strasburg comparisons being bandied about, all the buzz on social media and elsewhere about how he's the “savior” and a “phenom,” about how many Ks might be hung in left field, how many triple-digits would show on the pitch speed, how Cole's arrival could make up for the losses of Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Karstens, Jeanmar Gomez … again, easy with all that.
For one, despite the heat, Cole has never been a high-K guy. He had only 47 in 68 innings for Triple-A Indianapolis, never more than five in a game. He's best when pounding the lower part of the zone in search of grounders, as was abundantly evident Tuesday with the 10 groundouts.
For another, his pitch speed doesn't always spell success. Cole's motion isn't blessed with much deception, and the fastball levels out when he overthrows. Tuesday, too, it wasn't until a third-inning admonition from Russell Martin that he trusted the slider.
That retired 13 in a row.
“I really felt I was able to get comfortable there,” Cole said.
But it's from the team and rotation standpoint where the Pirates, particularly pitching coach Ray Searage, are trying to temper expectations.
Not ours but Cole's.
“I'm not concerned what's happening on the outside, but I am concerned about Gerrit's expectations,” Searage was sharing in the dugout before the game. “I want Gerrit to have to the right perspective. I want him to know what his job is. If he wants to live up to what others want, that's not being yourself.”
And what's fair?
“He's not our rotation. He's not here to save our season. He's here to be Gerrit Cole.”
Cole is 22. He shouldn't be expected to shoulder the load for a rotation that still has trouble going deep, nor certainly for an offense that still hasn't hit its stride.
As Hurdle bluntly put it after the game, “There's a lot going on around him, and people are going to get out in front of it. We're just going to let him pitch.”
Sounds about right. I'll bet he's a blast to watch for years to come. But he also just unpacked his bags. Maybe he should get to brush his teeth before launching some brush with greatness.
“Honestly, I'm looking to my second start,” Cole said. “I'll come in here and do my work to get ready for that.”
Also sounds about right. Pitching — in much the same way baseball elegantly equates life — is best gauged and grown through the prism of patience.
This, in so many ways, was a good place for Cole to start.