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Starting pitcher Cole coming of age as Pirates' staff ace

| Monday, May 12, 2014, 9:06 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers to the plate during the first inning against the Cardinals Friday, April 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers during the second inning against the Giants on Wednesday, May 7, 2014, at PNC Park.

The Pirates casually call Gerrit Cole a bulldog with a “once-in-a-generation” arm, mentioning him in the same breath as a pair of two-time Cy Young Award winners.

No one in the organization, however, has ordained him the staff ace.

Even so, Cole is emerging into that role earlier than anyone expected from the right-hander who was the 2011 No. 1 overall pick.

Not that he's ready to embrace the label, either.

“I've taken a lot of big steps. I've pitched in the postseason. I've done some things, but I still don't even have a year up here,” said Cole, who has a 13-9 record in 26 career starts.

“So I guess when I think about where I was last May, as frustrated as I get at times, it's kind of fun to take a step back and see that I wasn't even close to doing anything I'm doing now. I've raised the bar, and you've got to keep striving for that.”

Entering Tuesday's game at NL Central leader Milwaukee, when Cole (3-2, 3.64 ERA) is scheduled to face Marco Estrada (2-1, 3.53), Cole is the Pirates' lone starter with a winning record in a rotation in which Francisco Liriano (0-3), Charlie Morton (0-5), Wandy Rodriguez (0-2) remain winless. Edinson Volquez is 1-3.

“There are some guys in this league when they get sent out there, you expect to win ... Gerrit certainly has that potential,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said, noting that the Cardinals have it with Adam Wainwright and Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw.

“There's certainly the thought that with hard work, maturation and continued growth that Gerrit Cole can become one of those guys.”

After going 5-5 with a 3.95 ERA in his first 11 starts, Cole went 5-2 with a 2.28 ERA while pitching at least six innings in his final eight as a rookie. Despite being handed the ball for Game 5 of the NL Division Series at St. Louis, Cole said he viewed it only as “the hot guy gets the ball” and “wouldn't read into it any more than that.”

But Huntington said Cole's major league evolution as a rookie season was “like very few that I've ever seen before.”

Catcher Tony Sanchez said Cole was a “completely different guy” in the majors than the one he saw in Indianapolis.

“There's no question Gerrit has a very good arm, a once-in-a-generation type arm,” Sanchez said. “The biggest thing is not letting him know that. He's got to keep working. He's got to keep developing his stuff.”

Huntington said Cole, previously a fastball-slider pitcher, began to use a curveball, attacked the zone and got more swings and misses in the majors than he did at Triple-A.

Sanchez saw that Cole added depth to his curveball, sharpness to his slider, better command on his fastball to both sides of the plate and more deception to his curve.

“Each pitch got better,” Sanchez said. “You hear about guys making that jump from Triple-A to the big leagues and adjust and learn, it's almost like Gerrit was ready for the big leagues and got so much better when he got here. It was fascinating to see but it was also, ‘Gerrit, don't let it get to your head.' ”

The Pirates don't seem worried about that, given that Cole outdueled two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum in his major league debut and again in his most recent start Wednesday.

“He's mentally tough. Every time he gets the opportunity, he's going to do well,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “He showed that at a very early point of his career, even his first start. ... We knew we had something special then.”

Something special, and someone the Pirates can soon start calling their ace.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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