PITTSBURGH — Arizona jumped on Gerrit Cole early and Jeremy Hellickson kept the Pirates’ bats in check, as the Diamondbacks defeated the Pirates 4-1 in the first of their three-game set.
Gerrit Cole was charged with his seventh loss of the season — his third loss in his last four starts — while the Pirates’ offense went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and were unable to capitalize on their opportunities late in the game.
Cole attempted to establish his fastball early but initially struggled to command the pitch, and the Diamondbacks made him pay. They collected five hits in the first two innings, three of the extra-base variety, and plated three early runs to take control of the game.
However, Cole settled down after the second inning, and pitched into the seventh inning for the first time in his four August starts. He limited the Diamondbacks to three hits (one home run) over the next 3.2 innings, and kept the Pirates within striking distance. As he struggled to command his fastball, Cole turned to his curve ball and changeup more often, which allowed him to get into a better rhythm and he eventually located his fastball more efficiently.
Cole’s night ended after 6.2 innings in which he gave up nine total hits and four earned runs. He walked one batter and struck out five.
Unfortunately for Cole and the Pirates, the offense was unable to pick up the starting pitching on this night, as they have done in so many recent games. Diamondbacks’ starter Jeremy Hellickson worked at a snail’s pace, but did so effectively, keeping the Pirates’ offense off-balance and induced a lot of soft contact.
The Pirates’ offense was able to start rallies off in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, but came up empty each time, including a disappointing end to the seventh inning when the Pirates loaded the bases with just one out, but failed to score.
The Pirates will try to even the series tomorrow night when Francisco Liriano takes the mound against Chase Anderson in another matchup that looks to favor the Pirates. But as we saw tonight, matchup advantages don’t always equate to victories.
Cole’s August Struggles
Some might look at the box scores for Cole’s last four starts and conclude that he has struggled, especially with the lofty standards he set in the first half of the season. In August, he has a 4.70 ERA in 23 innings pitched, and tonight was only the first time in his last four starts that he was able to work into the seventh inning. His .391 BABIP and 2.07 FIP suggest that Cole is running into some tough luck, but that does not tell the whole story as Cole is inducing soft contact at an alarmingly low rate of 8.7%, his lowest of any month this season. He’s also inducing groundballs at a year-low rate of 34.8%, and his line-drive rate is up to 30.4%.
Delving deeper into those numbers, a lot of Cole’s problems seem to be stemming from his inability to be consistent with his sinker and slider. According to Brooks Baseball, opposing hitters have a slugging percentage of .444 against his sinker and .583 against his slider, while batting .333 against both of the offerings in the month of August. To put that into perspective, opposing hitters were batting a miniscule .157 against his slider and .267 against his sinker through the end of July.
I would be remiss not to mention the fact that the Pirates’ defense hasn’t helped Cole much, either. Beginning with Andrew McCutchen’s misplays in centerfield against the Reds on August 1st, to Aramis Ramirez’s failed throw to first against the Dodgers on August 7th, to Neil Walker’s throwing error against the Cardinals on August 12th, Cole’s month could have been very different with better defensive execution by the Pirates.
Encouragingly, it does not seem that Cole’s issues are related to fatigue, as he has maintained his usual velocity throughout this month. Cole is on pace to pitch a career-high 216 innings, although this is not substantially higher than the 196 innings that Cole threw in the 2013 season. It is likely that his recent struggles are just a blip on the radar of what has been a phenomenal season for Cole, but regaining his prior form with his slider and sinker will be key for Cole going forward.
**The Pirates’ bullpen posted 2.1 scoreless innings tonight, and have allowed a ridiculous one earned run over their last 18.1 innings pitched, dating back to Friday night.
It’s becoming even clearer that this is the strength of the Pirates, and could be a serious weapon come October.