ST. LOUIS — There have been a lot of concerns about Gerrit Cole lately. Some of them have been justified. Since the start of August, Cole has a 3.92 ERA and a 3.51 xFIP. Those aren’t bad numbers, but they’re not the stuff of an ace, and nowhere close to what Cole was putting up earlier in the year.
Part of the struggles were due to a few rough outings at the start of the month. In his last three outings, Cole had two starts where he went seven innings, giving up a combined two runs and one earned. Then he went to Milwaukee and gave up five runs in four innings of work and the concerns resurfaced. Cole might have settled those concerns for a bit longer with tonight’s outing, where he went seven shutout innings, leading the Pirates to a 7-1 win over the Cardinals.
“He’s shown the ability to [rise to the occasion],” Clint Hurdle said after the game. “I still think we’re missing the fact that the two games prior to the one in Milwaukee, he pitched extremely well. There’s just more attention on this game. He went out, took care of business. Once you get through the first two innings, the adrenaline settled down, settled in.”
Hurdle noted that Cole retired 12 batters on three pitches or less, and did a great job of using his fastball inside to left-handers, along with using both of his breaking pitches.
“I thought we got some traction, and hit a little hiccup [in Milwaukee],” Cole said of his recent success. “It was nice to get back on the horse. I started locating the fastball better later in the game and just tried to stay aggressive.”
The microscopic look at Cole even extended to the pre-game, where he was shown on TV grabbing his knee after a pitch. Cole said after the game that his undergear bunched up and he had an itch. Hurdle said that the trainer came down in the third inning wondering what was wrong after hearing so much talk about it on TV.
“I think he showed tonight that there was nothing wrong with his knee,” Hurdle said. “Just wanted to make sure we called his mom and dad and let them know he was OK.”
The Pirates have also moved Cole to start pitching with Francisco Cervelli, rather than his normal catcher for most of the year, Chris Stewart. This, combined with the struggles lately, has led to worries that Cole and Cervelli wouldn’t work well together. But that hasn’t been the case lately, as the two seem to be on the same page, including tonight.
“I thought [Cervelli] called a good game,” Cole said. “I thought we played good defense. We kept them off the board early. Allowed us to get in a rhythm, offensively and defensively. Everybody just played a great game tonight.”
Cole even did it all. In the top of the seventh inning he came to the plate with two outs and a runner at second base. He delivered a single up the middle, getting what would eventually be the game winning hit, and adding a key run to make the game 2-0. He even showed off good base running, going from first to third on a close play at first base, with the third baseman focused on the play and well off the bag.
“It was an easy decision to send him to hit,” Hurdle said. “His pitch count was in a good place. He was getting stronger as the game went on. He was going to be the guy for the seventh, and he went out and pitched like the best option we had for the seventh tonight.”
The Pirates added a lot of late insurance runs. Aramis Ramirez connected with a solo homer in the eighth inning — his fourth since last Saturday. Sean Rodriguez then hit a two-run homer in the same frame, extending the lead to 5-0. Starling Marte added more insurance in the ninth with his own two-run homer. That allowed the Pirates to sit down Mark Melancon, who was warming up in the bullpen, and go with Joakim Soria to close out the game.
The key thing here was Cole came up big against the Cardinals, and for now, removed some of the concerns about his struggles earlier in August. He’s been fantastic the last two years in September, and the Pirates could sure use the same thing this time around. Cole credits the late success to his training, and staying in shape.
“We’re in the part of the season where recovery is important,” Cole said. “You’ve got to be smart, but at the same time it’s put up or shut up. Figure it out. Get it done.”
Cole looks like the best option for when the Pirates likely end up in the Wild Card game (and I’ll have more about that in tonight’s First Pitch). He’s looked like the best option all year, until his early second half struggles. Outside of the Milwaukee start, he has looked like that ace once again recently. Last year the Pirates lost the Wild Card game after a great starter shut them down. Cole showed tonight that he could be the same type of starter in a big game, shutting down the Cardinals and giving the Pirates a big win as they still cling to the division hopes, and try to secure home field in the Wild Card game.
**It might have been a big game, but that wasn’t the approach Cole took tonight: “I didn’t think we thought of it as a big game,” Cole said. “We obviously came out with a mindset, we had a job to do. Win tonight, have a happy flight. But we just played a great game altogether.”
**The Pirates will head to Cincinnati tomorrow and play an afternoon game, which is a quick turnaround. Aramis Ramirez pointed out how the Pirates’ depth can help them with this situation: “Good teams have good depth,” Ramirez said. “Tonight’s a perfect example. Right now we won’t get into Cincinnati until two in the morning, and we have a 1:00 game tomorrow. You’re going to have to rest some guys. Fortunately enough, the guys we’re able to plug into the lineup, they’re more than capable to get the job done.”
**Clint Hurdle isn’t exactly counting the Pirates out of the division, citing his time with the Rockies: “We came in and played them one game at a time,” Hurdle said of the Cardinals and their division chances. “I was on a team in ’07 that was six out with 14 to play. So numbers don’t mean a whole lot. Until you’re mathematically out, you’re in it. And the way I look at it, we’ve won three of the last four games here.”
**Gerrit Cole wasn’t buying into the outside hype of the division race: “I think if we just stay focused on what we stay focused on, which is ourselves playing good ballgames, trying to win everyday. Don’t take wins with us. Don’t take losses with us. We just stay with that approach. The results are going to be what they’re going to be. They’re having a great season. The Cubs are having a great season. There’s a lot of baseball left, so we’ll see.”
**The ultimate goal for Cole is still clear though: “Our goal is to win the division. That’s what we set out to do from day one. But there are things that are out of our control. There’s a lot of noise coming in. We’re going to have to filter and stay with our approach.”