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Cole strikes out 12 as Bucs avoid sweep

| Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 3:57 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers against the Padres on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Jose Tabata flashes the 'Z' after a two-run double against the Padres in the fourth inning Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Pirates celebrate Pedro Alverez's fourth-inning homer against the Padres on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker hits a two-run homer against the Padres in the fourth inning Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen celebrates with Neil Walker after Walker's fourth-inning home run against the Padres on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez homers against the Padres in the fourth inning on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers against the Padres on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jason Grilli celabrates with Tony Sanchez after a 1-2-3 eighth inning against the Padres on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Justin Morneau (left) congratulates Pedro Alverez after Alverez hit a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Padres on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole gets ready to throw against the Padres on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates trainer Todd Tomczyk and manager Clint Hurdle check on catcher Tony Sanchez after he fell into the Padres' dugout while making a catch in the eighth inning Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at PNC Park.

When Gerrit Cole arrived earlier this season, a question echoed around his locker and in Clint Hurdle's office: Where were the strikeouts?

Cole came to Pittsburgh with a 100 mph fastball and breaking balls holding plus potential, according to scouts. But Cole's strikeout rate was below expectations in the minor leagues, and he averaged just 4.1 strikeouts per nine innings in June with the Pirates.

No one is asking about the strikeouts now. Cole struck out a career-high 12 batters Thursday in helping the Pirates avoid a sweep with a 10-1 win over the Padres. Cole continued his torrid September when his strikeout rate has spiked and he's been the Pirates' best starter.

In four starts covering 26 innings this month, Cole is 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA and a strikeout rate of 11.4 batters per nine innings.

Cole, 23, has taken well to high-stakes baseball.

“Everyone wants to face the best guy in the biggest game in a pressure situation,” Cole said. “If you don't, I don't know why you're here.”

Cole's performance combined with the organization's relaxing of workload restrictions have guaranteed him a spot in a playoff rotation should the Pirates advance beyond a wild-card game. The win gives the Pirates (88-65) a game lead over the Reds for second in the NL Central. The Reds were off Thursday before beginning a three-game series at PNC Park on Friday.

Why have the strikeouts spiked in September? The increase is tied to a velocity decrease.

A criticism of scouts dating back to Cole's time at UCLA was he threw everything hard. There was not enough velocity separation between his fastball and secondary pitches, which is key to disrupting batters' timing.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Cole (9-7, 3.23 ERA) has created velocity separation this September with both his slider and curveball. On Thursday, five of his 12 strikeouts came on pitches that registered between 83-89 mph, well below his 95-99 mph fastball.

“I try not to over throw the slider as much. I think that's the biggest thing,” Cole said. “A.J. (Burnett) has talked to me a lot about the curveball; (Jason) Grilli and (Francisco) Liriano about the slider. I'm trying to pull different pieces of information together and trust what I have when I go out there.”

• Cole struck out Will Venable and Ronny Cedeno swinging on 86 mph sliders in the first.

• He struck out Tommy Medica with an 83 mph curveball in the fourth; Medica's RBI single in the first was the only damage Cole sustained.

• Alexi Amarista waved at an 89 mph 3-2 changeup in the fifth.

He allowed four hits, a run and walked four over six innings.

Tony Sanchez said Cole is a different pitcher than the one he caught earlier this year.

“His off-speed pitches are so much better than what they were in Indy,” Sanchez said. “There's a lot more life. They're a lot tighter. He's throwing them for more strikes.”

Cole's command has improved despite having thrown 29 13 innings more than he did in 2012.

Cole painted the outside corner with a 99 mph fastball to strike out Venable in the fifth and hit Sanchez's glove with a 98 mph fastball to strikeout Medica in the sixth. Said Padres manager Bud Black: “We just couldn't get to the fastball. We knew it was coming.”

Cole welcomed another change Thursday: run support.

After being held to four runs in three losses to open the series, the Pirates scored five runs in the fifth. Pedro Alvarez hit his 34th home run, Jose Tabata followed with a two-run double and Neil Walker capped the inning with a two-run homer.

Walker offered a fist pump as he rounded first — an emotional release, a sweep avoided.

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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