INDIANAPOLIS — In a must-win game for the Indians’ parent club in Pittsburgh, a storied franchise previously 21 years removed from the postseason will give the ball to a 23-year-old who began the season in Indianapolis. If his limited playoff track record is any indication of what’s to come, Gerrit Cole was the Steel City’s unanimous choice for the series-deciding game in St. Louis.
“We have one game to win,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said after naming Cole the Game 5 starter. “As I’ve done and I’ve challenged the guys to do, we need to do the best we can to win that next game. I believe that match up is the best we can do to beat the Cardinals in Game 5.”
The unanimous choice, but not an easy one.
Cole will shoulder the load in place of 15-year MLB veteran A.J. Burnett, who faced a six-hit, seven-run barrage through just 2.0 frames in his most recent start in Game 1. Although Burnett anchored the pitching staff throughout the regular season, leading the Bucs staff in both innings pitched and strikeouts, Hurdle based his decision on the right-hander’s continuous struggles in the city of St. Louis.
Burnett is 2-2 with a 15.50 ERA in five career starts at Busch Stadium, whereas Cole, in a lone start, is 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA.
“It has been a very challenging park for him (Burnett),” Hurdle said. “If this was any other venue, he would have gotten the ball. But for me, in this venue, in this game, Cole is going to be our guy.”
With a vote of confidence from his skipper, the former Indians ace is set to stare down the division-winning Cardinals on Wednesday night. The contest will mark just his second outing in the intimidating ballpark of St. Louis, where Cole’s first playoff start and first playoff win silenced a packed stadium of more than 45,000 fans on Oct. 4.
Cole said his postseason debut in Game 2 was easily the biggest stage he had experienced away from PNC Park to this point in his career. While he complimented Pittsburgh as a “madhouse” during the Wild Card Playoff, the MLB rookie pointed out that the most “electric atmosphere” he had seen on the road prior to Game 2, was an elimination game between his alma mater (UCLA) and TCU during the 2010 College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium.
“When we got to Omaha, the whole stadium was purple,” Cole said. “That was a big game. They (TCU) came in with a lot of momentum. We had no choice, rather, than to shut them down, and we had to do that.”
The stadium of purple will turn into a sea of red this time around, but he will need to stick to his must-win mentality from the College World Series if he is to pilot Pittsburgh into the National League Championship Series for a date with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The former top prospect has made a habit out of serving as the stopper when his team has needed it most, and before picking up several key wins for the Buccos late in the year, Cole fired 7.0 innings of three-hit ball on June 5 to halt a red-hot Durham club from pulling within half a game of Indianapolis for the best record in Minor League Baseball.
His clutch performance against the Bulls is especially noteworthy in that it featured a hitless effort from then-top-prospect and current American League Rookie of the Year candidate Wil Myers, who went 0-for-3 in three trips to the plate against Cole.
“He wanted that challenge of facing Myers,” Indianapolis Indians Manager Dean Treanor said when reflecting on both Cole’s win against Durham and overall stint with the Tribe. “He worked very hard here, has been very open to learning, asking questions, so this (Triple-A) was an invaluable experience for him.”
Experience is something the MLB newcomer has been forced to pick up quickly as each successive start brings more pressure from the end of the regular season into the playoffs. From making his debut in June, to the Pirates’ winning-season clincher in September, and now Friday’s Game 2 victory against the Cardinals, Cole continues to add experience to his already impressive resume —
Which now bears a new ‘objective’ of outdueling St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright.
“(I’ve been) Getting more comfortable,” Cole, who enters tonight having made nine straight quality starts, said. “When you’re more comfortable out there, you start seeing different things, relaxing more, being able to trust your pitches more and not try to overdo things as much.”
“The game plan has evolved as we’ve gotten further along.”
The same can be said about Cole’s postseason role on Pittsburgh’s pitching staff. “Evolved.”
What initially began as a potential long relief spot out of the bullpen has quickly turned into starts in both Game 2 and the upcoming series-deciding Game 5. Both following a Pirates loss, both on the road and both in the tough venue of Busch Stadium.
Tonight, powered by Cole, Pittsburgh will be looking to continue along its path to its first NLCS in over 20 years.
And that path runs through the heart of St. Louis.
“You’re in enemy territory, the place is going to be loud, it’s going to be rocking.” Cole said. “(But) It’s playoff baseball. Anything goes.”