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Gerrit Cole Goes the Distance, McCutchen and Kang Break Out Bats in Pirates Win

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PITTSBURGH — In a season full of unrequited hope, Wednesday night was a night of catharsis for the Pirates. Gerrit Cole earned his first career complete game in his 88th attempt. Andrew McCutchen and Jung Ho Kang had performances at the plate that hinted at breakouts of their months-long slumps, and the Pirates abused starter James Paxton and the Mariners bullpen to the tune of a 10-1 victory.

Cole was equally dominant and efficient. He allowed just three hits and struck out six in his nine innings, and did so on just 93 pitches. He didn’t walk a batter, and the first Mariner to even see a three-ball count was the final batter of the game.

“He was so pitch-efficient,” said manager Clint Hurdle. “The fastball played from start to end, he used all four of his pitches, the curveball was a factor. Moving the fastball around as well as he did was what really separated him.”

Even more impressive in Hurdle’s mind was that the Mariners had stacked seven left-handers in the lineup, hoping to capitalize on some of the success the Washington National had in Cole’s previous start.

“Some lefties got him … in Washington,” Hurdle said. “He put his foot down and pitched. That’s as efficient as I’ve seen him since he’s been here. Twenty pitches the first inning, 74 for the other eight. Really good outing.”

Andrew McCutchen had a perfect view of Cole’s outing from his post in centerfield. He saw something special.

“The ball was just jumping out of his hand,” McCutchen said. “The first inning, he was sitting at 97. His arm is there. Not only was he throwing the ball, he was locating his pitches, his secondary pitches and so forth and so on. He was doing a really good job.”

GOING THE DISTANCE

Cole was of course aware that he hadn’t yet thrown a complete game, but after the 20-pitch first inning, it wasn’t something that was at the front of his mind.

“I thought they battled me really tough in the first, they had some really good at-bats and fouled off some tough pitches,” he said. “We just continued to attack because I figured some of those foul balls would eventually be mishits. … You try to do it every time out but it’s not something I had been dwelling on. There are a lot of variables that can leak into any start and throw you astray, so you just focus on the things you can control like your delivery and making quality pitches.”

Complete games are pretty rare in 2016. The Pirates have been part of just four on the season — two for and two against. The proliferation of pitch counts and predetermined roles of receivers have conspired to keep them down across baseball for several years now. But with Cole cruising through the Mariners’ order and at just 80 pitches through eight innings, there was no way Hurdle was taking him out.

“He earned that opportunity,” he said. “There’s no flat-out way I’m taking him out of that game. There’s no way he’s coming out of that game without getting an opportunity. You’ve got to give him a chance to paint his own picture.”

Hurdle felt that the ability to not only shut the Seattle bats down, but to do so in such an efficient fashion points to Cole’s continued progression as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

“I think [pitching a complete game] is part of the ownership of working your way to being a staff ace,” he said. “He’s still got work to do. He’s still cutting his teeth in some areas. That type of performance is the type of performance you need to put you in that position. It helped the confidence. It’s the first time he’s been through nine. He’s out there sniffing it a couple times.

“We’ll see what’s on the other side of this. However, I see him working to be that guy, working hard to be more pitch-efficient, working hard to be smart with his pitches as he gets more knowledge of the hitters, especially a stacked left-handed lineup like that. I think that carries a lot of confidence for him moving forward.”

Hurdle did give a word of caution, though. Pitchers that throw a complete game frequently have a subpar outing their next turn. Cole’s will likely come Tuesday in Atlanta with an extra day of rest.

BATS ON A ROLL?

While Cole was providing plenty of pitching, the Pirates’ offense had a hefty challenge in the form of James Paxton, a lefty that can hit 99 MPH with his fastball and has been devastatingly good at times this season.

The Pirates took a two-pronged attack into Paxton. They strung together some big hits in the third inning to put up a crooked number, and then worked Paxton to 97 pitches through five innings and piled on against the bullpen.

“After the sun went down, we were able to get him out of the stretch,” McCutchen said. “It seemed like he wasn’t able to locate as well as when he was in the windup. We got him in the stretch and it seemed like he was having a little trouble throwing the ball where he wanted it. We were able to get balls out over the plate, wait for him to throw to us and put a swing on them.”

More so than the number of runs and the quality of pitcher they were scored on, the most encouraging thing about the Pirate’s offensive performance was the men doing the damage.

Jung Ho Kang and McCutchen entered the game with dead-even season batting averages of .241. Kang was 1 for 4 with a walk and four RBIs. McCutchen was 3 for 5 with four RBIs. Kang’s bases-loaded double in the seventh broke things open for the Pirates and McCutchen’s three-run home run in the eighth was the cherry on top of the sundae.

If the Pirates can get those two bats back to their usual level of production, it’ll be a huge boost down the stretch.

”I don’t think there’s anything in this game that helps boost confidence other than success,” Hurdle said. “Their success was real — the ability to drive in some runs, the ability to lay off some pitches.”

McCutchen, in particular felt that his performance was something that he could build upon.

“I felt something, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m just going to stick with this and keep going. It was a good day for me as far as the feel goes, and had the results with it. I’m just going to stick there and keep going. Hopefully, it can propel me into these last couple of months of the season.”

WEB GEMS

What hard-hit balls the Mariners were able to muster off Cole, the Pirates’ defense quickly snubbed out. Sean Rodriguez made a pair of leaping catches in right field, Kang laid out for a ball toward the line to rob Mike Zunino of extra bases in the seventh and Josh Harrison started a double play from his backside to finish the game in the ninth.

“The defense behind [Cole] was very significant, very special,” Hurdle said. “More than a handful of plays were top-shelf. That comes when you’re throwing strikes. Guys were lined up in good areas. Guys reached out and made plays. But it still started on the mound, and finished on the mound.”

“Sometimes the ball finds you,” Harrison said. “It found me quite a bit tonight. When I picked [the one in the ninth], I thought, ‘Let’s get this complete game for [Cole]’. He went out an threw a great game You could tell all night, and we made some plays for him. That’s what happens. He attacked the zone early and when you’re in the game, you’re going to get the first step on certain balls that if it’s a long game, you may not.”

That doesn’t even include this play, in which bobble on a routine grounder at first by David Freese turned into a clutch desperation play.

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