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Gerrit Cole is making the most of an early arrival with Pirates

Right-hander from Orange Lutheran High and UCLA, who will face St. Louis on Wednesday in the decisive game of a National League division series, has given the Pirates a big boost since reaching the majors ahead of schedule in the summer.

October 08, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • With Pittsburgh's playoff hopes on the line in Game 5 of their National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, rookie Gerrit Cole will take the mound Wednesday for the Pirates.
With Pittsburgh's playoff hopes on the line in Game 5 of their National… (Elsa / Getty Images )

ST. LOUIS — Gerrit Cole shouldn't be here.

Shouldn't be in the major leagues. Shouldn't be in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. Definitely shouldn't be scheduled to start Wednesday against the St. Louis Cardinals in the deciding game of a National League division series.

"I should be watching this game on TV," Cole said with a grin. "It's kind of surreal."

Cole was supposed to be the Pirates' future, not their present. As the first pick in the 2011 draft, he was expected to develop like fine wine — getting better with age and maturity.

By early summer, though, that plan had changed. With three starters on the disabled list the future was needed now, so General Manager Neal Huntington uncorked Cole and rushed the hard-throwing right-hander to the big leagues.

Nineteen regular-season starts later, Cole had the second-most victories on the team, 10, along with a very respectable 3.22 earned-run average.

Which is part of the story about how he landed in what is arguably the biggest game the Pirates have played in more than two decades.

"Things work out for a reason," said Manager Clint Hurdle, whose team is bidding to win a postseason series for the first time since 1979. "I believe when you do the right things, do them for the right reasons, you make the right decisions at the right times and you take care of people.

"What we have seen since Gerrit has been here has been a young man that continues to improve. The competitive edge that he takes on the mound is visible. The emotion that he pitches with … that's special and that can be significant.

"He respects everything. He fears nothing."

Cole began developing those traits at Orange Lutheran High, where he was throwing a mid-90s fastball at age 16. By his sophomore season at UCLA, he was among the best amateur pitchers in the country, with an 11-4 record and 153 strikeouts in 123 innings.

He always had a big arm, but his new teammates say that hasn't led to a big head.

"The thing that I noticed about Cole is that he picks things up, he learns faster than a lot. And he wants to be better," said veteran A.J. Burnett, the pitcher Hurdle passed over in favor of Cole as Wednesday's Pirates starter. "Every time out it just seems like it's not good enough. So he's always trying to get better. It's something to see from a young kid."

Cole, 23, has won his last five decisions, including Game 2 of the NLDS at Busch Stadium, when he held the Cardinals to a run and two hits in six innings.

Cole has given up more than three earned runs only once in 20 big league starts, including his NLDS victory over the Cardinals. He has been at his best in big moments. With the Pirates battling to stay alive, he has nine consecutive quality starts and had a 1.69 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 32 innings in September.

"He's been as good as anybody we've been able to run out there the last six weeks," Hurdle said.

For good measure, with a .206 batting average, he's also the team's best-hitting pitcher — a talent he displayed in his first playoff at-bat when he singled in the run that put Pittsburgh ahead to stay.

"I can't think of anybody that's been more consistent than he has, which is really extraordinary in such a young pitcher," Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton said.

For Cole, it has all been a blur — from his two spring-training starts, to the injuries that led to his midseason call-up, to this — a second postseason start in his not-yet-five-months major league career.

"I was just excited to have the opportunity in June," Cole said. "I didn't know how long I was going to be up … so I kind of took it one game at a time. And then all of a sudden I felt like we were in September, and all of a sudden I had gotten, you know, a lot better and the games started to get more intense, and the race started to go down to the wire there.

"I just realized that I had been taking the same approach since I did when I came up: Just take it one game at a time, one start at a time, and just take care of business in between those starts that I got on the mound."

A victory Wednesday would take Cole back to Southern California to play the Dodgers in the Championship Series beginning Friday.

When the Pirates visited Anaheim in June, he slept at his parents' house in Tustin, but Cole says he won't be doing that this time.

"You know the traffic," he said. "I'm not dealing with an hour-and-45-minute drive."

Considering how far he has come, that doesn't seem like much of a journey.

"The whole season so far is a storybook kind of season," he said. "And I think we're all just excited to see what the next page holds."

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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