Cole focused on regaining 'feel' on mound, not necessarily results
BRADENTON, Fla. — Gerrit Cole's fifth pitch of 2016 landed on the party deck beyond the right-center field fence at McKechnie Field, a solo shot off the bat of Anthony Gose, the first batter Cole faced in Grapefruit League play.
During the following inning, Cole watched part of the trajectory of a home run Detroit Tigers designated hitter Casey McGehee lifted into a bright Sunday sky and strong outgoing wind, which carried the ball over the left-center field wall.
Had it been the regular season, Cole might have displayed more emotion. He might have barked at himself in frustration. Instead, he turned his attention to home plate and extended his glove for a new ball.
Rather than focus on results in his spring debut, Cole's objectives simply were to remain healthy and get the “feel” of pitching back after having his spring delayed because of rib inflammation.
Cole allowed two runs and two hits in two innings. He did not walk a batter and struck out Nick Castellanos swinging over the top of a slider in the first.
“I just wanted to get through this one and get a feel for what's going on,” Cole said. “You have to start somewhere.”
“Standard procedure,” he said. “That includes a bullpen session and his next start, which will continue to build his arm strength and pitch count.
After an offseason in which the Pirates did not add a significant arm to the rotation, there is one thing above all else Pirates management is seeking from Cole.
“Health,” general manager Neal Huntington said.
In 2014, Cole made two trips to the disabled list, missing 70 days because of shoulder and back injuries. The experience compelled Cole to improve his between-starts workout regimen, adopting new shoulder exercises and injury-prevention therapies.
The circular bruising from suction cups, an ancient Eastern practice called “cupping” designated to promote blood flow and reduce inflammation, again are apparent on Cole's back and shoulder this spring. Last season, he began wearing a device to monitor his heart rate and energy consumption.
He began doing less between starts, not more.
Last season, Cole breached the 200-inning mark (208) for the first time. He remained healthy and productive in a season in which he finished sixth in National League Cy Young voting. The innings allowed him to better repeat his delivery and master his slider, which he used to neutralize left-handed hitters.
There's a handful of players the Pirates can ill-afford to lose for a significant amount of time, and Cole is on the short list.
“First and foremost, just see if he can keep his adrenalin in check,” Huntington said of spring goals for Cole. “He's such a competitive man. He's driven to be elite. (But) remind him that it is a spring-training game, that he's going out there to condition as much as anything else. To get the feel of his delivery as much as anything else and continue to take the steps in the right direction.”
Cole appeared to stay within himself and not overthrow. A scout in attendance had his fastball velocity between 90-94 mph, below his average fastball velocity of last season (95.4 mph), which ranked third in the game among starters. He trailed only Anaheim's Garrett Richard and Kansas City's Yordano Ventura.
But Sunday was not a day to light up the radar gun.
Huntington said Cole continues to mature. He continues to understand how to manage his arm. He knows Sunday was not the time to do too much. He knows being an ace starts by staying on the mound.