Kevin Gorman: Cole Tucker captures Pittsburgh’s heart, just when Pirates needed it
Hearts dropped when Starling Marte and Erik Gonzalez collided at full speed Friday night at PNC Park, a play that left both players injured and the Pittsburgh Pirates seriously short-handed.
Their corresponding move had Cole Tucker’s chest pounding Saturday as the shortstop was ecstatic about joining outfielder Bryan Reynolds in making their major league debuts.
That’s the problem with trying to put your finger on the pulse of these Pirates: Every time it looks like they are left for dead, they give us palpitations. Conversely, it seems every time they capture this city’s hearts, it is only until their next catastrophe.
Instead of curtains, we got a curtain call.
Tucker didn’t just get his first major league hit against Derek Holland and the San Francisco Giants. With two outs in the fifth inning, Tucker crushed a 2-2 pitch for a two-run homer to straightaway center that proved to be the game-winner in a 3-1 rain-shortened victory. The shot sailed over Kevin Pillar and into the shrubs that spell PIRATES. Tucker let out a primal scream after rounding third and headed home with his right arm extended.
Tucker didn’t just emerge from the home dugout to tip his batting helmet. He reveled in the celebration before a crowd of 17,663, raising his arms and pumping them before pounding his left hand on his chest. Tucker didn’t just give the Pirates fans at PNC Park something for which to cheer but, more importantly, someone.
“I was so excited to do it that I got out there and just was floored with emotion, man,” Tucker said. “It was loud. People were screaming. It was really, really, really cool.”
It was perfect timing, and not just because his homer was the thunder that followed a flash of lightning to beat a three-hour rain delay. It also provided perfect symmetry to the storyline, as the last Pirate to homer in his major league debut was none other than Marte.
It was exactly what this town and this team needed, at just the right moment. The Pirates had returned home with the best winning percentage in the National League, just days after the Penguins had been swept out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So it only made sense on the same night the Pirates moved into first place in the NL Central they lost their starting shortstop and center fielder on one play. Where Marte was placed on the 10-day injured list with contusions to his abdominal wall and quadriceps, Gonzalez was placed on the 60-day injured list with a fractured left clavicle.
“That was cool. I didn’t show up thinking, ‘Oh, I’m stressed because Marte got hurt or Erik got hurt or whatever,’ but it definitely felt like we needed a pick-me-up,” Tucker said. “It was sweet to go out and do that.”
Manager Clint Hurdle didn’t mince words when asked what prompted the call-ups of Tucker and Reynolds. This was no time for subtlety, and he made it clear it wasn’t because of their impressive slash lines in two weeks at Triple-A Indianapolis.
“The need for center field and shortstop, quite frankly,” Hurdle said. “Next man up, absolutely.”
That goes against any plans the Pirates had to bring both players along methodically. Opportunity knocked down the door, leaving them no choice but to answer. This wasn’t about service time or years of control. The Pirates were in survival mode.
That brought Reynolds full circle, as he was part of the package the Pirates got from the Giants in return for trading Andrew McCutchen in January 2018. That his first major league start was in center against San Francisco was delicious irony for Reynolds, who got his first hit on a two-out single through shortstop in the fourth inning and made a nice over-the-shoulder catch in deep center to end the inning.
Tucker, on the other hand, was the Pirates’ 2014 first-round pick. They had hopes he was the future at a position that remained unsettled despite the presence of another former first-rounder, Kevin Newman, and the offseason trade with the Cleveland Indians for Gonzalez.
Tucker spent the past two spring trainings with the Pirates, so Hurdle had an idea of what to expect of a skill set that includes defensive dependability and clubhouse charisma. That’s what Hurdle was looking for from the remaining Pirates veterans.
“There’s times like this,” Hurdle said before the game, “when there could be some anxiety, there could be some uneasiness that a voice of reason or somebody with experience can hopefully help or be of benefit.”
Little did the Pirates know that the voice of reason was the one telling them to let the kids play, or that Tucker would be the one to circumvent catastrophe and capture the city’s hearts.
If not make them skip a beat again.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .