MIAMI — Gerrit Cole had a rough start to the month of August. In his first four outings, the Pirates’ ace combined for a 4.70 ERA and a 3.53 xFIP over 23 innings. There were some concerns at the time that he might be wearing down. There were also concerns over his play, which were probably combined with concerns about Francisco Liriano’s struggles, A.J. Burnett’s injury, and uncertainty over J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton.
Cole has since rebounded very well. In his last outing, he gave up just one unearned run in seven innings. Tonight he went 7.1 innings, giving up one run on five hits, with no walks and four strikeouts. Overall, he set the tone for a great night of pitching that saw the Pirates win 2-1, taking their third of four games against Miami.
“Cole was outstanding off the mound tonight,” Clint Hurdle said after the game. “Then you get the job that Watson does and Melancon does. Tough to pitch much better than we did.”
Hurdle didn’t comment on what specifically was working for Cole the last two outings, opting not to “give away all [the] trade secrets.”
“He’s doing some things different,” Hurdle said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to execution. Even though his first pitch strikes [were] about 50 percent, he got immediately back in the counts. He got quick outs. He had 14 hitters retired on three pitches or less. He only had two, three ball counts tonight and no walks. And that screams at you about command and control and execution.”
Cole chalked it up to good luck, better execution in key situations, and good defense. On tonight’s outing, he noted that they were able to get weak contact and quick outs against an aggressive team.
“They were pretty aggressive, so it forced us to make quality pitches early,” Cole said. “Fortunately we were able to execute efficiently through most of the game and do some weak contact and get some quick outs.”
Cole did show all of his pitches early, rather than going with the fastball-heavy approach in the early innings that you normally see. Hurdle noted that this was an example of Cole counter-punching to adjustments that were made to him.
“I just think he’s trying to continue to establish different looks,” Hurdle said. “He has actually four quality pitches that he can throw. Scouting reports get around. People start doing things, jumping on tendencies. I think he’s seen different teams approach in different ways. This point in time of the season, there’s always opportunities to counter-punch. I think he’s been counter punching very well. His last two starts have been lights off stuff off the mound.”
Cole has been getting work with Francisco Cervelli recently, which is most likely an attempt to get him comfortable with Cervelli prior to the Wild Card game. Unfortunately tonight, Cervelli was ejected at the start of the third inning for arguing balls and strikes. I’ll have more on that in tonight’s First Pitch. Ultimately, that paired Cole back up with Chris Stewart for the rest of the game.
Hurdle stuck with Cole until the eighth inning when he put the tying run on second with one out. That’s when Hurdle played the matchups, going with Tony Watson with two left-handers due up. Watson struck out Dee Gordon and got Ichiro Suzuki to ground out, ending the threat.
Mark Melancon came on and converted his league-leading 41st save of the year, but it came with the help of a great defensive play. Melancon gave up a single to Martin Prado to lead off the inning, then got a shifted 4-5-3 double play, with Josh Harrison — playing third base at the time — shifting over to cover the bag and make the turn at second.
“You’re not going to see a better double play turned at the end of the game, with the shift on and those people and those places to turn that double play,” Hurdle said.
Melancon got Marcell Ozuna to ground out to finish off the game.
Hurdle Makes the Right Call on Alvarez
Prior to the game, Hurdle gave Pedro Alvarez a start against a left-hander, noting that he didn’t want Alvarez sitting for a long stretch with the Pirates playing five left-handers in seven days. It seemed Hurdle was picking the best matchups for Alvarez during this stretch. Tonight, he picked very well, as Alvarez destroyed a home run to deep center field to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead in the fourth, and give them their eventual winning run.
“It’s just trying to stay up the middle with him,” Alvarez said of the play and the approach versus Justin Nicolino. “He does a good job of changing speeds and changing location. Just trying to let the ball get deep and make good contact.”
Hurdle said after the game that Alvarez has as much raw power as anyone in the game, even referencing Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton. He also pointed out that Alvarez is giving the Pirates a boost in the second half.
“He’s shown the ability to have some good at-bats,” Hurdle said. “He’s been swinging the bat better in the second half. The overall package has been good. He’s been producing runs. We’re just trying to look for opportunities where we think the pitch patterns and the swing have an opportune matchup.”
Alvarez has actually been playing well against left-handers this year, with a .790 OPS, a .343 wOBA, and a 108 wRC+. All of those have been better than his numbers against right-handers, which is surprising.
“It’s just getting those opportunities to go up there and battle at-bats,” Alvarez said on what has been working for him this year. “Just try to stick to a good approach and work with what I’m given.”
**The Pirates took three of four against Miami, and are now on pace to win 99 games this season. They return home tomorrow to face the Rockies for three games, before an off-day on Monday. Pete Ellis will have coverage of all three games, and Sean McCool will join him for added coverage on Sunday.
**Hurdle on the overall game and the series against Miami: “That was a very well-played game. Very well pitched game. Some good defense. It had all the things that you want to watch when you get out there. Our guys are playing hard. It’s real fun to watch. We competed well while we were here.”
**Alvarez on the entire team playing well right now: “I think we just do a pretty good job of just going out there and trying to play the best we can. Our pitching has been phenomenal. Our bullpen has been outstanding. They always give us an opportunity to be able to come back, and overcome any deficit. It’s easier to do when it’s one or two runs, as opposed to four or five. Our pitching has been outstanding.”
**Alvarez on Cole’s success this year: “To me, he hasn’t changed. He’s been strong since day one…He’s been performing at a high level. There hasn’t been any lulls. It’s just been high energy, high intensity, and just dominant the whole year.”
**Aramis Ramirez has made some strong plays this series. Tonight was the second night in a row where he laid out to make a nice play down the third base line. He also had an underrated play on Gregory Polanco’s assist, receiving the ball in the perfect spot and keeping the tag down to help complete the play. Hurdle said that Ramirez is getting more comfortable since the trade.
“I just think it’s his overall comfort zone,” Hurdle said. “I think he’s found the rhythm to his game that he likes playing with. There’s times no matter whether you’ve got one year, or 15, or 17, that you come in a new situation. There might be some urgency once in a while to do more than you’ve really been doing for 17 years. He’s gotten to a real good place slowing the game down at the plate, and with the glove. Complete extension the last two nights on balls to the line. Fun to watch.”