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Gerrit Cole: From Indianapolis to ... Game 5 starter for Pirates?

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

The A's and Tigers are on a collision course in the ALDS. (USATSI)
Gerrit Cole could be in line to start game 5 if the series gets that far. (USATSI)

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. It was less than 24 hours earlier when we were discussing how the October-savvy Cardinals made the Pirates look like a bunch of wide-eyed kids.

But because Gerrit Cole is neither as wide-eyed nor as much of a kid as he was even a month ago, the Pirates are back in business following Friday's 7-1 series-evening win over St. Louis.

Now headed back to Pittsburgh with lefty Francisco Liriano up next, the Pirates recaptured both home-field advantage and some serious momentum. So the next question becomes: Can the Pirates grow up as quickly as Cole has over the past several weeks?

Watching this kid's development has been some kind of impressive. He started the season at Triple-A Indianapolis, joined the Pirates on June 11 and during the month of September went 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA over five starts.

Then, Friday's Game 2 gem in which he stifled the Redbirds on two hits and one run over six innings. He walked one, struck out five and needed just 86 pitches to send the Buccos toward even in this series.

Two things are at work here:

One, the Pirates have managed him tremendously. They backloaded his workload so they could give Cole, 23, some rope at season's end. Unlike last year's Nationals, who spent their collateral early with Stephen Strasburg and kept him as a spectator during the Division Series, the Pirates helped Cole save plenty of bullets for later by limiting his innings early.

Two, this is one smart kid and quick learner. Everybody knew he was a future star when the Pirates made him the first-overall pick of the 2011 draft. But his ability to learn new tricks and retain lessons picked up along the way fit nicely alongside a fastball that averages around 98 m.p.h. and, according to Pitchf/x, touched 102.6 earlier this season.

Cole learned and appears to have perfected a curveball this year, which, as manager Clint Hurdle says, has made his fastball “play bigger.”

But the extra-impressive thing is how the kid has learned on the fly in the majors a feel for when to add an extra m.p.h. or two to his fastball and when to subtract it.

“The offspeed stuff has really been helping my fastball,” Cole was saying in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago. “And recognizing situations when you have to pull the string.

“I honestly don't recognize it all the time. Thank God we have the best catching staff in the major leagues.”

Russell Martin, who has become quite a leader in his first season in Pittsburgh, was behind the plate for Game 2. Against this battery, the Cardinals never had a chance. They threatened early when Carlos Beltran ripped a first-inning double – what's new? – but then Cole quickly got fly balls from Matt Holliday and Matt Adams. Threat over.

Cole then retired the next nine Cardinals in order, before yielding a Yadier Molina home run to lead off the fifth. By which point the Pirates – who desperately needed to get their bats going Friday – led 5-0.

“He has what I call Big Boy Pants,” manager Clint Hurdle was saying regarding Cole the other day.

What will be interesting now is if this series extends out to Game 5, which it very well could. That game would be played next Wednesday, with both A.J. Burnett, who was clobbered in Game 1, and Cole rested and ready to go.

It would be a game that would require Big Boy Pants. And despite Burnett's fine season, it would be no surprise at all if Cole gets the ball.

 
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