Gerrit Cole steps into the box for his first Major League at-bat with the bases loaded. Two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum is 60 feet, 6 inches away. After two straight strikes, Cole lays off three pitches out of the zone. Then Lincecum throws a fastball at Cole’s elbows.
Cole taps his left foot and smacks the pitch into the gap in right-center. If Gregor Blanco does not cut it off, it’s a bases-clearing double. Instead, Cole’s first base hit since his days for the Orange Lutheran High School Lancers is a two-run single to put his new team ahead for good in an 8-2 win Tuesday night.
“I just got lucky, you guys,” Cole said. “I just got lucky.”
Lucky or not, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said it turned around Cole’s frame of mind after early struggles.
“I actually think after he ran the bases it probably got his adrenaline to a very competitive and good place,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I think he was amped up.”
Hiccups to Start
The No. 1 overall draft pick had to withstand two early jams before his go-ahead single. After striking out Gregor Blanco, the first batter he faced, with a 99 mph fastball, Cole allowed Marco Scutaro to single to right field and Hunter Pence to hit an infield single. Cole escaped by getting Brandon Belt to pop out on a 97 mph fastball.
More trouble in the 2nd inning: Andres Torres and Joaquin Arias singled on two fastballs. After Lincecum bunted them over, Cole hit Blanco with a fastball on an 0-2 count. Bases loaded, and Cole said he was thinking, “I better make a pitch or we’re screwed. So get over it and let’s go.” He used his slider to draw an inning-ending flyout. Five runners on, no runs. It was important for Cole, who pitched worse in Triple-A with runners on base (opponents hit .225 this year) than bases empty (.171).
Then came the two-RBI hit off Lincecum on a 3-2 pitch.
“Usually a pitcher gets up there, he’s gonna be trying to put the bat on the ball,” Lincecum said. “The takes that he took were indicative of the fact that they weren’t even close to the zone.”
The Pirates’ top prospect settled in after his single, efficiently getting 13 consecutive outs on 40 total pitches. His gameplan consisted almost exclusively of his two best pitches: fastballs (80 percent) and curveballs (17 percent).
“He’s got the fastball I’ve ever caught from a starter. There’s no question,” said catcher Russell Martin, who is in his eighth Major League season. “I can’t explain it. It just has a heavy feel, and he’s able to locate it down in the zone.”
Cole outperformed Lincecum (4.2 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 4 K), keeping the Giants scoreless through six innings until he gave up three hits and allowed two runs in the 7th. Of his 81 total pitches, 65 were fastballs and 46 of those fastballs were thrown for strikes. At his best, Cole retired 13 straight batters on five pitches or fewer, pitched into only one three-ball count and allowed no walks.
“He was pounding the strike zone, getting ahead of hitters and keeping them defensive,” Martin said, and Cole did throw 70% first-pitch strikes. “When you’re doing that, you’re gonna get weak groundballs.”
The End, but no Smile
In the 7th inning, Cole’s fastball appeared to flatten out in giving up three hits to the Giants, despite continuing to light up 97 mph on the radar gun. Torres lined a single to right to start the inning, then Brandon Crawford lined a single to left. Though Cole had thrown just 76 pitches, pitching coach Ray Searage came out to talk and reliever Tony Watson began to warm up. Cole’s next pitch almost drew a 5-4-3 double play, but Arias beat it out.
Then pinch-hitter Tony Abreu roped an RBI double into right field to end the shutout bid and send Cole off to cheers and ovations from most of the 30,614 people. Lincecum said he tipped his cap to him, but Cole did not do the same to the crowd.
“I was trying not to look up, because I felt like I was gonna smile. And that would not have looked really hard or really cool,” Cole joked. “But it was very much appreciated, and it was very hard for me to keep a stone face.”
Cole’s final line was similar to his Minor League numbers: 6.1 innings, 7 hits, 2 earned runs (he was charged when Watson gave up an RBI groundout to Blanco), 0 walks and 2 strikeouts. While he tilted more to efficient than dominant, Cole showed flashes with his fastball hitting triple-digits and getting reigning most valuable player Buster Posey to whiff at a slider in the dirt for his second strikeout.
“That’s a big night for the organization,” Hurdle said, mentioning the scouts, player development personnel and minor league coaches. “It is a village. It’s a group effort. To see a young man step up… It’s special.”
Perhaps most impressive of all, the pitcher who never recorded a base hit in the minors or entered the batter’s box at UCLA followed up his two-run single with a hard-hit comebacker to Lincecum and a line drive that was swiped by center fielder Blanco before it could bounce into the grass. It garnered another applause for Cole, who relaxed as the game went on.
“I wasn’t nervous before the game or anything, and that was weird. And I was kind of nervous about that, not being nervous,” Cole said.
After the nerves, Cole pitched a quality start against the team with “World Series Champions” written on every player’s right arm. The Pirates would probably grade their pitching phenom an “A” for his debut, but there was one aspect where teammate Neil Walker and the dugout flunked him: his “Zoltan” hand signal after the base hit.
“F. F-minus,” Walker said. “I kind of winced when I saw him do it.”