Cole driving Pirates' playoff train
Ace will bring fiery edge to NL Wild Card Game vs. Cubs
PITTSBURGH -- He already has a nickname -- Cole Train, for the way he has steamed down a fast track since being the overall No. 1 pick in the 2011 Draft -- but Gerrit Cole could also go by "The Edge," if that hadn't already been taken by the famed guitarist.
The ultra-competitive Pirates right-hander, who will face the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday in the National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser at 8 p.m. ET on TBS, has that chip-on-the-shoulder vibe on his game days.
It shows long after he leaves the mound. An hour after his most recent start, a seven-inning turn Wednesday for an 8-2 victory over the Cardinals critical in what was still a division race, Cole still had that icy glare seen on all the great ones before they decompress.
It shows long before he even takes the mound.
"I woke up with an edge this morning," Cole admitted after that victory over St. Louis.
Mostly, however, it shows when he is on the mound, protecting his teammates' house. Threaten it, and he becomes John McClane with a baseball in his hand.
"He pitches with an edge from the time he goes out there," manager Clint Hurdle said of one of the first things he noticed about Cole. "He loves the competition, he loves the arena, he loves it when he has the opportunity to be the guy -- to be that starting pitcher in a pennant race."
The Pirates had not been in a pennant race for 20 years until Cole showed up in June 2013. He has been in a pennant race every season of his fledgling Major League career. The two are very much related.
With a disregard for historical context perhaps typical of the modern athlete, Cole almost resents comparisons with the faded names of the Pirates' past his performances have evoked. He won 30 games quicker than any Pittsburgh pitcher since Emil Yde (1924-25). Cole is the first Pirates pitcher to reach 15 wins in his age-24 season since John Candelaria (1977). With 19, he is the team's biggest winner since John Smiley (1991). Just don't ask Cole about his accomplishments.
"I have a hard time commenting on that stuff, because I can't relate to it," he said -- with end edge.
Reporters with enough tread wear to make the observation compare Cole to somebody else. "This is what it must've been like to be around Bob Gibson," they say, recalling the famously intense Hall of Famer.
One reason Cole resents those statistical comparisons is that he doesn't seem interested even in his own numbers. He has his own barometer for success.
"I've been able to contribute, to put us in a good spot to win, fairly consistently throughout the year," Cole said about the most satisfying aspect of his season. "Trying to get better, always, is my goal. What I've been able to do is pretty cool, but there is a lot of room for improvement."
And for adjustments. For a still-young pitcher, Cole has become remarkably unpredictable. He still packs a lot of heat -- prior to that last start, against the Cardinals, he led all MLB starters with 160 pitches of 96-plus mph after the sixth inning, and the Mets' Matt Harvey was a distant second with 106. However, Cole has also become increasingly reliant and trusting of his slider, leading to a dramatic jump in his ground-ball rate to 62 percent -- a staple of the Pirates' pitching philosophy.
"The fastball command makes him dynamic," Hurdle said, "but the other pitches also play. He wants to be a master craftsman out on the mound."
Cole will be back in the shop for the NL Wild Card Game. While everyone around him fretted over whether the Bucs would be able to clinch the home-field advantage for that game, Cole wasn't the least bit concerned.
Yes, he has an edge even over Wrigley Field. He is 5-1 there, including wins in his first four starts without allowing a home run out of the Friendly Confines. And the only other ones who did that were Grover Alexander (1916-17), Vida Blue (1978-86) and Mike Morgan (1989-91).
Enough information to make the Cole Train jump the tracks.