Gerrit Cole took down two Cy Young Award winners in his first two career starts… (Justin K. Aller / Getty Images )
Shadows covered most of the infield at Angel Stadium when Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole took his place on the mound and brought the heat back to a cooling Friday evening.
Pitching quickly and efficiently in only his third major league start, the Orange Lutheran High graduate and three-year UCLA product handcuffed an Angels lineup that had recently found its collective batting stroke. As Cole threw two- and four-seam fastballs that topped 100-mph a half-dozen times and stayed in the 90s into the seventh inning, he generated a strong sense that something big was happening and a promising career was being launched.
Cole limited the Angels to four hits over 61/3 innings and struck out five in a 5-2 Pittsburgh victory, his first road start but an impressive homecoming for the Newport Beach native who turned down a chance to sign with the New York Yankees after they drafted him 28th in 2008 and became the No. 1 overall pick in 2011.
"I've been on that mound before a couple times," said Cole, who slept in his old bed in Tustin on Thursday night. "I think it hit me when I heard 'Calling All Angels' at the beginning of the game because I've been listening to that song since I was like 6."
He kept the Angels scoreless until the seventh inning, when Albert Pujols -- a swinging strikeout victim in his previous two at-bats -- lined a home run to left-center. After giving up his first major league walk and taking a liner by Howie Kendrick on the thigh -- a sight that had fans wincing at the replay on the scoreboard -- Cole gave up a run-scoring single to Alberto Callaspo and exited to an audible and deserved ovation.
Cole had prevailed over Cy Young winners in each of his first two starts -- the San Francisco Giants' Tim Lincecum on June 11 and the Dodgers' Zack Greinke last Sunday -- and that was a first, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Friday's Angels starter, Jered Weaver, finished in the top three in Cy Young voting the last two seasons, for whatever that's worth.
What's worth remembering was a strong performance by a promising young pitcher who consistently dealt 100-mph fastballs.
"We call it 90-10 instead of 98, 99," Manager Clint Hurdle said, smiling. "It's not as weird as it used to be. It's still a number, though. It grabs everybody's attention. Especially in the parks we play in now, the highest volume of anything people look at is the radar gun. And you know something has happened in the ballpark when it hits 100. You hear the crowd. We heard it at home a couple times. 'Ahh.' "
Cole said he heard the crowd gasp when 101 was posted on the scoreboard. "I just figured I had a couple opportunities to let it go, so I might as well let it go."
Cole is learning to be more than a thrower, and he worked his slider into the mix more often in the middle innings Friday.
The Pirates staked him to a 4-0 lead by the fourth inning so he didn't have to battle much, but he has shown he can do that if needed. Hurdle called it pitching with an edge, "pitching stubborn," and pitching coach Ray Searage liked it. A lot.
"That is a great trait as a pitcher," said Searage, a former reliever who ended his major league career with the Dodgers. "You don't give in to anybody and you're trusting your stuff and you go right after them and be very aggressive, but under control."
For a pitcher with that velocity, Cole doesn't have a lot of strikeouts: eight in 181/3 innings. Searage wants consistency to be Cole's priority.
"Once he gets the total package in there, and then with the velocity, the combined velocity, the command of the fastball and being able to go in and out and do all your special little things 'pitching' quote unquote, I think his strikeouts will come," Searage said, his fingers sketching quotation marks around the word "pitching."
The emotional side of the game has never been a problem for Cole.
"I coached him three years, and he's probably the most competitive kid I've ever been around. On and off the field, he was very competitive," said former Orange Lutheran coach Mike Grahovac, now head baseball coach at Concordia University.
But that doesn't mean Cole's path was always smooth.
"As fiery as a competitor as he was, if something didn't go right he was an explosive kid. That's just how he was. Nothing wrong with that," Grahovac said. "As a high school coach you just try to calm that down and the next thing you know, you're butting heads."
Watching from afar, Grahovac said he has been impressed by Cole's new maturity and poise, especially after Cole didn't make the Pirates' roster out of spring training.
"He went down and did his job and got himself ready to go when they called him," Grahovac said. "And now he's up there."
And, maybe, ready to soar.