Amid hype, Cole's sparkling debut gives Bucs hope
Pittsburgh's top prospect whiffs first batter, drives in pair in first career at-bat
PITTSBURGH -- Ninety-six, 97, 99 to Gregor Blanco.
Strike one, strike two, strike three.
Well, hello there, Gerrit Cole.
You get $8 million before you ever throw a professional pitch, and for some strange reason people heap high expectations upon you. They pack the stands of PNC Park, ready to root on a Pirates team that looks more real by the day and the No. 1 pick whose organizational arrival two years ago was the only good thing to come out of a mountain of losses.
This is where we found Cole on Tuesday night, and rarely does such an arrangement turn out this well. Truth is, we tend to ask too much of our bonus babies, if only because the hype of the possible overtakes our enjoyment of the actual. And in a place like Pittsburgh -- a place that can be a great baseball town, on the condition that it gets great baseball -- the hype and the hope are particularly palpable.
But Cole, to put it plainly, did not disappoint here. He went 6 1/3 innings, allowing two runs on seven hits with two strikeouts and no walks in the Pirates' 8-2 win over the Giants. He drove in the first two runs himself, on what he estimated was his first hit since high school. All told, Cole arrived looking every bit as ready and reliable as the Pirates could have possibly planned, and that game-opening strikeout of Blanco was proof positive.
"I was not nervous before the game," Cole said. "That was weird. I was nervous about not being nervous."
There is a nervousness associated with these Pirates, who improved to 12 games over .500, simply as a product of their second-half fades in 2011 and '12. But Cole is a guy we've cited as a reason that what we've been watching is legit, because he signals that next wave of talent waiting in the wings if things at the Major League level start to go even the slightest bit south. A guy like Cole adds a dimension of depth that was alive and in living color against the defending world champs.
"To see a young man step up, maintain composure and compete like he did in his first Major League game," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, "it's special."
Maybe Cole's debut didn't come on his timetable (he did not hide his disappointment with his Spring Training reassignment to Triple-A), but it came just in time for a Buccos team enduring a recent rash of injuries in the starting five and for a fan base that was equal parts attentive to and appreciative of everything Cole did on the mound -- and at the plate.
Yes, Cole "helped his own cause," as us sportswriters are contractually obligated to say, with that second-inning single. But somehow this offensive feat was nowhere near Cole's most impressive achievement. His box score line is made better when you note how he kept his composure when the early innings nearly went awry, how he showed no fear with his fastball in attacking the strike zone, how he maintained that high-90s heat right up through his final pitch and how he worked so efficiently and so seemingly effortlessly that you often had to remind yourself he had never been on this stage before.
Cole threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 27 batters he faced, retired 13 hitters on three pitches or fewer and had only one three-ball count, as Hurdle was quick to note afterward. Before the game, the Giants were saying the pressure in these situations is on the kid. After all, he's the one who has to throw strikes, with all eyes on him. And Cole demonstrated the good things that happen when you achieve this seemingly simple feat.
"There was no deer in the headlights look from him at all," Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker said. "He worked quick, he worked efficiently, he threw strikes and those are all good things for a defense."
Certainly, the defense helped. Walker and first baseman Garrett Jones teamed up on a beauty of a play -- Walker ranging far to his right to snag a bouncer and Jones making a prime pick of the throw -- to rob Hunter Pence of a single in the sixth. And Pedro Alvarez had a terrific night at third base.
Cole is and will continue to be the story, though, because too much of the Pirates' present -- and yes, we can officially call it the present -- is wrapped up in his strong right arm and sturdy 6-foot-4 frame.
It's a worthy investment.
Remember, Cole's the guy who spurned the Yankees, who took him 28th overall out of high school in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, to go to UCLA. That took some serious belief in his abilities -- belief that was rewarded in a big way as Cole's stock rose in college and the Buccos came calling with the No. 1 pick almost two years to the day before this debut.
But Cole's confidence does not give way to cockiness. His presence in his postgame presser was as impressive as it was on the hill, as he made it a point to heap all the praise on catcher Russell Martin (a guy who shares Cole's knowledge of what it's like to find a bigger payday with the Pirates than the Yanks) and his defense.
He did, however, know how to stick up for himself. For when he was made aware that Hurdle had mentioned Jason Jennings' 2001 Rockies debut as the best he had ever seen in-person, Cole came back with a quip.
"Did he do it against the defending world champions?" Cole asked.
A good point, articulated efficiently. That's how Cole rolled on this night.