BRADENTON, Fla. -- Spring Training began exactly seven weeks before Opening Day with three important words from Gerrit Cole, three words he recently reiterated: "Right on track."Cole is healthy, and that may be all that matters right now. Set off course by injuries last year, Cole is in a much
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Spring Training began exactly seven weeks before Opening Day with three important words from Gerrit Cole, three words he recently reiterated: "Right on track."
Cole is healthy, and that may be all that matters right now. Set off course by injuries last year, Cole is in a much better place as he prepares for his first career Opening Day start, on Monday at 2:05 p.m. ET against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
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"I feel really good," Cole said in an interview with MLB.com. "It's been a good spring. It's been fun. It's been relaxing, just not as intense all the time. I did a lot of work and got some pieces in the right spot. I know how to go about this."
There was no question Cole would get the nod, and the Pirates wasted little time making it official. Manager Clint Hurdle set three-fifths of Pittsburgh's rotation on Feb. 25. Combined with good health, the early assignment allowed Cole to proceed through Spring Training with a purpose and end date in mind.
The 26-year-old right-hander ramped up the intensity early, particularly in a scoreless exhibition start against the World Baseball Classic's Dominican Republic squad on March 8, and he dialed it down in a handful of Minor League outings.
"Very athletic on the mound, very focused; appreciative of the health," Hurdle said. "Love the stuff that's coming out of the arm. Also love the way he's integrated, pushed in and poured into all his teammates. It's been fun to watch."
This time last year, Cole was pushing toward the finish line after a bout of rib inflammation slowed him at the start of camp. The Bucs' rotation faltered throughout the season, and it started at the top.
Cole was sidelined by a strained right triceps and twice more by inflammation in his right elbow. He was never himself on the mound, physically unable to get his mechanics in comfortable and repeatable form, sacrificing some elements of his game to stay on the mound.
"There were things last year that I was trying to focus on just to get through the game," Cole said. "Health is key. Last year was tough. … You get into a tough spot where you're not feeling good and you can't do what you're typically accustomed to doing, you just keep grinding. It's hard to explain."
But it showed, as Cole posted a 3.88 ERA with declining peripheral numbers over 21 starts. This is the same pitcher who broke out in a full, healthy 2015 by going 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and 202 strikeouts over 208 innings.
"It's no coincidence that when Gerrit was healthy and good, much like when [former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen] was good, we were good," general manager Neal Huntington said. "The longer I do this, the more I recognize how important it is for guys to have baseball offseasons instead of injury recovery or rehab offseasons."
The only eventful part of Cole's past offseason? His November wedding and honeymoon with longtime girlfriend Amy.
Cole sets the tone for the Pirates in many ways, from the clubhouse to the mound. Cole said he doesn't place any more weight on his first start than the rest of them, but he admitted that it should be exciting to start on Opening Day at a historic ballpark like Boston's.
"It's exciting," Cole said. "I've never done it before, so I don't have any perspective on it. It's the first game of the year, man."
In describing Cole's spring, Huntington used three more words that should bode well for the 2017 Pirates.
"Healthy and confident," Huntington said. "The way he's gone about his progression this spring has been really encouraging."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.