Pirates' Cole proves to be as good as advertised
Gerrit Cole had the most difficulty in keeping his composure Tuesday as he walked off the mound. He left his first big league start to a standing ovation at PNC Park, following 6 1⁄3 efficient innings to lead the Pirates to an 8-2 win over the defending World Series champion Giants.
“I was trying not to look up because I felt like I was going to smile,” Cole said. “And that would not have looked hard or cool.”
There was plenty for Cole and 30,614 Pirates fans to smile about Tuesday.
Cole used ruthless efficiency and a blazing fastball to dominate the Giants, hardly appearing like a nervous rookie pitcher. After working around a pair of hits in the first and second innings, he needed only 38 pitches to breeze through the next four innings, setting down 13 consecutive Giants.
Cole allowed two runs on seven hits and did not walk a batter. He struck out two en route to his first major league win. He also had his first hit since high school: a two-run single off Tim Lincecum in the second inning.
“When you have a lead, it allows you to be aggressive,” Cole said. “If there's no one on base, I'm going to just challenge guys.”
Cole's debut was different but nearly as dominant and hope inspiring as that of Stephen Strasburg, another former No. 1 overall pick. Strasburg allowed two runs in seven innings against the Pirates on June 8, 2010.
Cole's stuff is often compared to Strasburg's.
Cole's fastball touched 99 mph twice, and it registered 96 mph or better 36 times. He often challenged and overwhelmed Giants' bats in the strike zone. Gregor Blanco began the game by swinging and missing at a 99 mph fastball for a strikeout.
Scouts agreed Cole's second-best pitch is a swing-and-miss slider. He struck out NL MVP Buster Posey swinging on an 82 mph slider in the sixth.
Despite the dominant stuff, Cole has not posted Strasburg-like strikeout numbers, owning a pedestrian rate of 6.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings at Triple-A.
Cole says he prefers efficiency to strikeout totals.
Typically, offspeed pitches generate the most strikeouts, but of Cole's 81 pitches, 65, or 80.2 percent, were fastballs Tuesday, an unusually high ratio.
“Just pound the zone,” Cole remembered thinking as he walked from the bullpen prior to his start. “I can't say enough about always putting hitters on their heels 0-1.”
Cole's reliance on his fastball is a product of the Pirates preaching fastball command. Cole's command improved in his recent minor league starts. Of his 81 pitches Tuesday, 59 were strikes.
“He threw first-pitch strikes exceptionally well,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “The tempo was good. His focus. He was down in the zone, which he maintained all the way until the end.”
Cole also has worked on creating a better plane with his fastball. An NL scout said Cole gets in trouble when his fastball flattens out in the upper part of the zone. Cole kept the ball down for the most part Tuesday, generating 10 groundouts versus six fly outs.
Cole did not allow a run until the seventh when Tony Abreu ripped a fastball to right for an RBI double, ending Cole's night. He left to a standing ovation.
Cole's last pitch traveled at 98 mph. On Wednesday in his Triple-A start at Indianapolis, he threw his 88th pitch at 99 mph. Stamina is perhaps Cole's most distinguishing feature, similar to another arm drafted by Pirates assistant GM Greg Smith: Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
But it was perhaps Cole's first pitches — 96 mph, 96 mph and 99 mph strikes — that were most impressive.
“I wasn't nervous before the game or anything, and that was weird,” Cole said. “I was kind of nervous about that not being nervous.”
Tuesday was a big moment. It was a major league debut, but it wasn't too big for Cole.