A road playoff game did not change what is becoming a recurring theme — Gerrit Cole has become the Pirates’ most consistent starting pitcher.
By dotting the fastball around the plate and mixing in his breaking pitches, Cole allowed only three Cardinals baserunners over six innings to help get the Pirates a 7-1 victory.
“Dynamite from pitch one,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Angles of the breaking balls, good location with the fastball, very aggressive.”
Check out the key moments from the start that evened up the NLDS, and go in sequential order because time is a continuum.
1. Carlos Beltran doubles off the wall in the 1st inning.
All season Gerrit Cole, with the help of a fast outfield, limited extra-base hits. Opposing batters had just a .336 slugging percentage against him, better than notorious good pitchers Chris Sale, Adam Wainwright and Felix Hernandez.
He did the same today, allowing only two Cardinals to get past first base. One was Beltran’s double on a fastball Cole admits “caught quite a bit of the plate and he did what he should have done with it.”
But instead of pressing after that (Cole had a 5.68 ERA in the 1st inning of games this season), Cole escaped with two fly-ball outs.
2. Cole helps himself with an RBI single to make the Cardinals pay.
The 23-year-old says he doesn’t have a true approach at the plate, even though he is now hitting .216 since reaching the Majors. With Pedro Alvarez on second base in the 2nd and two outs, St. Louis starter Lance Lynn intentionally walked Jordy Mercer, wanting instead to face Cole.
“I kind of figured Lynn was going to come after me, so I just tried to stay short and stay up the middle,” Cole said. “I just see him and try not to break my bat.”
Cole did more than that, he got a good swing that bounced up the middle and put the Pirates ahead 1-0. It was the first postseason RBI by a Pittsburgh pitcher since Doug Drabek in Game 1 of the 1991 NLCS.
3. Matt Carpenter strikes out to end the 3rd inning.
Cole activated cruise control in the 3rd, a 10-pitch inning marked by his first two strikeouts. The rookie got Lance Lynn on a called strike-called strike-whiff combo then did the exact same to the left-handed Carpenter. The Cardinals’ second baseman could not catch up to an elevated 98-mile-per-hour fastball, and Cole headed to the dugout for a break.
It seems a big part of Cole’s late-season success (he has a 1.66 ERA in six starts since the beginning of September) has been his improved ability to settle himself early in Major League games.
“I think it’s just being more comfortable. You get up here and everything’s new.” Cole said. “Once you start to get your feet settle in, it allows you to kind of relax out there.”
4. In the 4th, Matt Holliday looks at 97-mph fastball for strike three.
Holliday said he “thought it was a ball.” Cole’s full-count fastball was certainly low and probably below the strike zone. But catcher Russell Martin framed it with his glove, held it a moment and a got the strikeout gesture from home plate umpire Wally Bell.
“Just trying to do my job,” Martin said. “Wally asked me if I thought it was low. I said it could have been low, but it’s not by much. And if I’m hitting, if I get rung up on that pitch, I’m probably beating myself up because it’s too close to take.”
That was the 10th of 11 straight batters Cole retired in the first four innings, and the ensuing Matt Adams groundout got him past St. Louis’ three best power hitters.
5. Yadier Molina leads off the 5th with a home run, the Cardinals’ only run.
It broke Gerrit Cole’s streak of 154 straight batters without allowing a homer, but the pitch actually was not that bad. Molina is a good hitter, and the 93-mph sinker was just high enough for Molina to get a hold and smack it over the center-field wall.
The fans in red were able to cheer some scoring for the first time, but Cole still held a 5-1 lead and did not let the situation snowball. Heck, it’s too hot this week in St. Louis for snowballs anyway.
(I’m so sorry.)
6. Next batter Jon Jay whiffs on a 97-mph fastball.
One of the strongest aspects of Cole’s start was his dominance of left-handed hitters. St. Louis lefties went 1-for-11 with two strikeouts against Cole as he mixed in some cutters to get some weak contact. But it was a no-nonsense four-seam fastball that got Jon Jay to swing and miss right after Molina’s homer, proof that Cole was still very much in command.
In fact Cole got through the first five innings on just 63 pitches, even more efficient work than he had done in the regular season.
7. Framed again — Beltran stares at Cole’s fifth and final strikeout.
After Cole walked Matt Carpenter with one out in the 6th, he got into an eight-pitch battle with Beltran. The radar gun hit 100 mph for the first time, but it took locating a low-and-inside 98-mph fastball to freeze Beltran and quiet a Busch Stadium crowd that was beginning to cheer and wave its towels.
“For the most part I try to just get ahead and just keep the pressure on him, really,” Cole said. “The rest makes it up enough to keep him off the fastball.”
In that 6th-inning at-bat, perhaps something else kept Beltran from swinging at Cole’s fastball.
“I think he shook me off four times to get to the fastball,” Martin said. “So it might have got in the head of Beltran, thinking it might have been off-speed.”
8. Cole meets with Martin and ends his outing 100 miles per hour.
The starter would only go six innings, but it featured a fine finish. Another long at-bat against Matt Holliday re-energized the Cardinals fans, looking for anything to latch onto with their team trailing by four runs.
After a Holliday fouled off a 3-2 pitch, Martin went out to talk to Cole, then the tandem dialed up a 100-mph fastball on the edge to get Holliday to ground out and silence Busch Stadium again.
“Obviously he’s throwing 96 to 100, so you’ve gotta get ready for the fastball,” Holliday said. “[It] was a tough pitch and probably was a ball. I tried to hit it and grounded out. He pitched tough.”
Gerrit Cole had done his job and more to earn a quality start in his first playoff outing. He got kudos and high-fives from coaches and teammates. It was all smiles in the Pirates dugout on the path to a series-tying win.
“A big-game performance from Gerrit,” Hurdle said. “Just what we needed.”