INDIANAPOLIS — It’s one thing to live up to the billing as a top prospect in the Minor Leagues.
It’s completely different when you deliver as the top arm on one of the National League’s best pitching staffs.
The “ace” of win No. 82, if you will.
As the Pittsburgh Pirates battled for their first winning season since 1992, they turned to former Indianapolis Indians standout Gerrit Cole to snap a season-worst four-game losing streak.
And where the rest of the Bucs’ rotation had had come up empty in their most recent outings, Cole delivered.
A.J. Burnett? Nope. A loss with five runs in 3.0 innings.
Filthy Francisco Liriano? Wrong. A loss with seven runs in 3.0 innings.
All-Star Jeff Locke? Negative. A loss with three runs in 5.0 innings.
Red-hot Charlie Morton? Keep trying. A loss with five runs in 1.2 innings.
But Cole was different.
The top prospect answered the call with arguably his best and most important start of his career, firing 7.0 shutout innings to pick up both his seventh win and the Bucco’s 82nd victory of the season. Cole held a powerful Texas Rangers lineup to just three singles on a night where he proved exactly why the Pirates selected him as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft.
“He’s growing up,” Pittsburgh Manager Clint Hurdle told the team’s official website following the win. “There’s different times he’s going to take different steps. I’m very optimistic this is going to be a step tonight because there’s separation from his next-best game to this one.”
By separation Hurdle was not only referring to the seven shutout innings, but also Cole’s career-high nine strikeouts against a team with the second-fewest whiffs in the entire American League. By separation it meant Cole had previously punched out more than five batters just twice in his first 15 starts with the Pirates, and never during his 12-start stint with the Indians. By separation it meant Cole’s swing-and-miss stuff kept Texas’ bats silenced, while giving his own teammates plenty to talk about after the win.
“It’s exactly what we needed,” Bucs first baseman and right fielder Garrett Jones said of Cole’s start. “…Cole pitched an awesome game, the game of his life so far, definitely the one we needed to get back on track.”
Cole’s masterpiece, his 16th start for the Pirates, may have very well marked his official turning point at the Major League level. While the right-hander initially yielded at least three runs in seven of his first 11 appearances with Pittsburgh (3.95 ERA), he has since rebounded to hold opponents to two earned runs or fewer in four of his last five outings (2.51 ERA), highlighted by last night’s scoreless start.
As Indians fans can attest to, Cole’s stretch of dominance isn’t likely a temporary phenomena. The hurler followed a nearly identical “learning curve” at the Triple-A level earlier this season, recording a 3.75 ERA in his first eight outings of 2013 before finishing with a clean 0.90 ERA and back-to-back scoreless starts.
And he hasn’t slowed down since.
“We tweaked the delivery a little bit over the last 4-5 starts,” Indians Skipper Dean Treanor told the Associated Press after Cole’s final game with the Tribe. “I think you’re starting to see the guy everybody’s been looking for.”
No one else more so than himself, as Cole is all too familiar with both his own abilities and own expectations. But after outdueling Texas starter and MLB strikeout leader Yu Darvish on Monday, the former top prospect finally admitted he was pleased with the end result.
“I was just happy I was able to come out and match him (Darvish),” Cole said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the league and fortunately I was able to keep them off balance enough to give us a chance to score.”
Across the diamond, the Rangers weren’t so modest when reflecting on Cole’s unrelenting assault.
“That guy was really good,” Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus, who was the only opposing batter to reach third base against Cole, said. “If he pitches like that every start, he’ll be the National League Cy Young (Award) winner.”
Quite the praise for a player that began the season as a top prospect in Indianapolis. Actually, come to think of it, that makes two teams Cole helped to 80+ wins this year.
Raise it. And Ring it.