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Cole pitches Pirates past Cubs

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 9:57 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole pumps his fist after getting the final out of the seventh inning against the Cubs on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates right fielder Marlon Byrd is greeted by manager Clint Hurdle at the dugout after hitting a solo home run during the seventh inning against the Cubs Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 at PNC Park.

The moment never has seemed too big for Gerrit Cole this season.

On the night of his big league debut in an electrified PNC Park in early June, Cole seemed as cool and calm as any player on the field. This September, in the midst of a rare postseason chase for the Pirates, Cole has pitched more like a veteran than a rookie overcome by high-stakes baseball.

Cole led the Pirates to a 2-1 win Saturday night over the Cubs before another charged crowd, the 19th sellout of the season (37,534), tying the single-season PNC Park mark set in 2001.

Jose Tabata and Marlon Byrd hit home runs for the Pirates.

“There's a motor running in there that's hot,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Cole. “He's found a way to keep the heartbeat slow.”

Cole (8-7, 3.33 ERA) has improved in the second half of the season, his growth accelerating in September. In three September starts, Cole has a 1.35 ERA and has won back-to-back outings, each following a Pirates loss. Five days after his best start of his career, when he threw seven shutout innings and struck out nine Rangers, Cole did not allow a run after the first inning and struck out seven Cubs in seven innings, allowing five hits.

Strikeouts were once a concern regarding Cole. But the UCLA product is averaging 9.45 strikeouts per nine innings in September as his strikeout rate continues to climb from 4.1 strikeout rate in April to 7.3 in July and August.

The change is in the quality of his slider, which has become a swing-and-miss pitch. Four of his strikeouts came via the pitch.

Cole has continued to maintain his velocity throughout the season, showing no signs of fatigue despite having thrown 173 13 combined innings across Triple-A and the majors this season. His strength is a reason he's not headed for a Stephen Strasburg shutdown and could figure into the postseason rotation.

The moment has never seemed too big for Cole, but one of the greatest challenges of his young professional career has been staying in it. Too often earlier in his career Cole had allowed a poor pitch or poor play behind him to affect his next offering.

But in the pivotal seventh inning Saturday, Cole remained in the moment. With the score tied at 1-1, Cole began the inning by walking Brian Bogusevic and then allowing Welington Castro to single. A Darwin Barney sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third with one out. Rather than allow frustration to affect his next pitch, Cole struck out pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro on an elevated 96 mph fastball. His 101st pitch of the game was a 97 mph fastball that Starlin Castro beat into the ground to end the inning.

“There's been a few times along the road where I've been like ‘Oh (expletive),' ” Cole said of his rookie season. “But that happens to everyone. You have to be tough out there because you're not going to be perfect.”

Cole kept his emotions restrained until he walked off the mound after the Castro groundout, slapping his glove several times before raising it to cover his mouth and a visceral scream.

“The kid is establishing himself out there,” Hurdle said.

In the bottom of the inning, Byrd homered to right-center off Cubs reliever James Russell to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead.

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