PITTSBURGH -- Friday night was a step in the right direction for Gerrit Cole, an encouraging sign that the Pirates' ace may be finding his form in the second half. But it was a step in the wrong direction, at the wrong time, for Pittsburgh's lineup.
Entering the All-Star break, the Pirates' rotation was their only glaring weakness. Their bench and bullpen had taken shape. Their lineup hit well in consecutive series wins over the A's, Cardinals and Cubs. But their ace delivered a solid start, and it went to waste as they were shut out by rookie Zach Eflin in a 4-0 loss to the Phillies at PNC Park.
The Pirates have scored 16 runs in seven games since the break, an average of 2.29 per contest, while hitting .209/.264/.305 as a team. They managed only three hits on Friday night, two of them by John Jaso, who was bumped out of the leadoff spot, and didn't draw a walk.
Afterward, the Pirates tipped their caps to the 22-year-old right-hander, who carved through the lineup on 100 pitches and struck out six.
"He did a great job staying around the strike zone," Jaso said. "It was a good night for him."
Eflin didn't come out of nowhere: He had a 2.45 ERA over his previous five starts, and he threw a 92-pitch complete game against the Braves on July 5. But manager Clint Hurdle pointed out that Friday's shutout wasn't all Eflin's doing.
"The guy pitched really well," Hurdle said. "We had balls to hit. We didn't hit them that well."
Every time the Pirates did make solid contact, it seemed, Phillies center fielder Odúbel Herrera or right fielder Peter Bourjos chased it down.
"That's deflating in the moment, but we're all professionals here," Jaso said. "We have a lot of games under our belt. You keep moving forward."
Perhaps more deflating was the feeling of seeing Cole on top of his game but not getting rewarded for it. Cole struck out seven and only walked one batter over six innings, giving up one run on six hits.
After a "frustrating" return from the disabled list against the Nationals last Saturday, Cole looked more like himself in his second start back. His delivery was sound and repeatable. He improved out of the stretch. His slider and curveball were moving, keeping Philadelphia's hitters off balance.
"When he's got those weapons, he's tough to hit," Hurdle said.
That was the case Friday night. But it wasn't enough for the Pirates as their offense kept them from making up ground in their attempt to climb up the standings toward a fourth straight postseason.
"Tonight was obviously a good step in the right direction," Cole said. "Not the outcome that we wanted, not necessarily results that we wanted, but I had to make some pitches, had some efficient innings, put the ball on the ground. It was a good bounceback start after Washington."