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Pirates' Cole aces every test as a rookie pitcher in MLB

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole gets a new ball from catcher Russell Martin after giving up a two-run home run to the Cardinals' David Freese during the second inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

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By the numbers

Cole's numbers since Sept. 1:

W-L 5-1

ERA 1.88

IP 43

H 29

BB 11

K 49

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
 

ST. LOUIS — Gerrit Cole did not face the same fate in 2013 as Stephen Strasburg did a season earlier, a factor playing a significant role in both the Pirates' first playoff berth in two decades and pushing the Cardinals to the brink of elimination in the NLDS.

In an era when many teams are cautious with prized young arms — the Nationals shut downStrasburg, who was coming off elbow surgery, before the playoffs last season and the Marlins ended rookie Jose Fernandez's season last month — Cole nearly reached 200 professional innings pitched (196 13) as a rookie, including 128 13 with the Pirates after being called up in June.

He logged 150 innings in 2012.

It was a considerable leap for a young arm. While the Pirates employ statistical analysis to monitor and in part determine workload limits for pitchers, the organization used an old-school approach of letting their eyes and Cole's performance dictate his limits.

The eyetest and Cole's performance determined the 23-year-old remain an essential part of the rotation in late September, and that he receive the Game 5 start Wednesday over veteran A.J. Burnett. Cole was the club's best starter after Sept. 1, going 5-1 with a 1.88 ERA.

“We've put our eyes on him. We've talked to our catchers,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's gotten stronger, it seems to us, from the visual aspect as the season has gone on. One other thing that we do old school, we actually communicate with the player. I just sat him down and said, ‘We need some answers here.' ”

Cole said he wasn't tired, and he never showed any sign of fatigue.

His fastball averaged 95.4 mph at the end of June. By the end of the season, his average fastball climbed to 96.1 mph, tops among MLB starters.

The UCLA product improved in the season's most trying period, posting a 10.7 strikeout rate in September.

Cole dazzled at times Wednesday, mixing a 100 mph fastball along with a knee-buckling curve. The rookie made one mistake, a hanging curveball to David Freese. But it was increased use and comfort with the curveball that improved his performance in September.

Until Freese's home run, Cole had allowed only one hit on his previous 232 breaking pitches, according to ESPN Stats.

“It was just a constant trying to get better,” Cole said.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington never made public Cole's workload limit this season. He did label Cole's performance through a pennant chase as “astounding.”

By not facing an earlier, arbitrary innings limit, Cole also gained invaluable big-stage experience.

“I took it all in,” Cole said. “There were some good things, there were some bad things. There were things I would have done differently and there are things I won't change. But that just comes with being here.”

After years of squandering premium picks, the Pirates got their 2011 No. 1 overall pick right. They developed the most valuable of assets: a young, cost- and service-controllable potential ace.

“We have an opportunity to get better next year,” Cole said, “and after having an opportunity to decompress, we'll all be chomping at the bit to do that.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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