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How the Pirates can overtake St. Louis

Beating NL Central opponents on the road will be key

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have been the best team in baseball over the past three months. But there are still a couple of mountains left for them to climb.

No progress was made toward scaling any peaks Tuesday night at Miller Park. Pirates ace Gerrit Cole, who came to this moment with a 2.44 ERA, was knocked around for four runs in the first inning by the fourth-place Brewers. The Brewers won, 7-4.

Cole, by any reasonable measurement, is one of the best starters in the game. At age 24, with 98-mph heat, exceptional command and highly effective off-speed pitches, he is already turning immense potential into impressive production.

But Tuesday night was a bump in the road. Cole had given up three runs on four hits before recording an out. He gave up five runs over four innings before being lifted. It was just the third time this season that Cole had given up more than three earned runs. This was his shortest start of the season.

Video: [email protected]: Lucroy lines single to score Herrera in 2nd

The righty did not spare himself in postgame review of his work.

"Generally, the stuff was kind of flat, not very crisp, some poor execution in there as well," Cole said. "I just got beat up real quick.

"I didn't work down. I didn't work efficiently. I was up in the zone. Stuff was going east to west mostly, not up and down. The stuff didn't have a downhill plane to it -- it was flat and undefined. It was just flat, undefined, wishy-washy, all over the plate."

Even in defeat, Cole gets high marks for candid self-criticism. The other good news was that with him throwing as high as 98, this performance showed no evidence of any physical distress.

"It was an off night pretty much around the spectrum of pitching," manager Clint Hurdle said. "There was no velocity dip or anything like that. It was the overall execution of the pitches early in the game.They took advantage of some missed execution early; I thought he pitched better the next two innings. I didn't see any sense in having him pitch any more tonight. It wasn't his night."

Video: [email protected]: Cole holds Marlins to one run over 7 1/3

And thus, the Pirates did not come closer to the two achievements that have eluded them.

Since May 31, the Pirates have had the best record in baseball, 53-27. The problem is that in those three months, they have only gained one game on the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central standings.

It is not the Pirates' fault that the Redbirds have the best record in baseball. The Pirates have the second-best record in the NL, and as we speak, that would get them home field advantage in the one-game Wild Card playoff.

The Pirates have played extraordinary baseball this season, with one notable exception. They are 7-19 on the road against NL Central opponents. This is particularly surprising given the fact that against everybody else they are 26-11 on the road.

Pittsburgh's schedule over the season's last month -- featuring home-and-home series against every other team in the Central Division -- will give the team ample opportunity to do something better with that division road record. Friday begins a big three-game series at St. Louis. 

"We're looking forward to it because it's the one area that we haven't done as well as we believe we should," Hurdle said. "But the numbers are what they are."

Video: [email protected]: Ramirez, Kang hit back-to-back homers in 9th

On the flip side, the Cubs, who are currently in the second NL Wild Card spot, and the division-leading Cardinals, have obvious incentives of their own. And a team such as the Brewers, entering into a rebuilding phase, still has plenty of motivation going up against teams headed for the postseason.

"It's a great challenge for the guys on this team, knowing that we're playing some teams that are the best in baseball," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "The teams [St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago] in our division are the best three teams in the National League -- arguably among the best five teams in baseball. These are the games you want."

The Brewers received a stellar start from Jimmy Nelson, who limited the Pirates to one earned run over seven innings. Nelson, in his first full season in the Majors, is 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA against the Pirates this year.

In the visitors' clubhouse, the central theme was Cole's obvious disappointment.

"I can be better than that," Cole said. "It was not the right way to start off a road trip."

He was right on both counts, but especially the part about being better than that. The Pirates have played some terrific baseball this summer, but they'll have to take it up another notch to catch the Cardinals.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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