Gerrit Cole: Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching Savior?

Pitching excellence and the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t really gone together in a while; after all, how else do you manage to accumulate 20 straight years of losing?

With Gerrit Cole, though, the Pirates’ fortunes are suddenly looking a lot better.

The 22-year-old – and first overall pick in the 2011 draft – made his first major league start on Tuesday night against the San Francisco Giants, giving up two runs in 6 1-3 innings of work. He struck out two and walked none.

Judging solely from a statistical perspective, it was the kind of effort one would expect from an eventual front-of-the-rotation starter. But to watch Cole work was something else entirely.

His poise suggested he was years ahead of his development, ready to contribute immediately at this level. Case in point: he threw 81 pitches and 59 of them were for strikes. With a fastball that hovered between the mid-to-upper 90s, Cole never wavered in his control, retiring 13 batters in a row at one point. And to cap off the first-game magic, he drove in two runners with a second-inning single.

Being the first overall selection in the draft – let alone being the draft pick for one of the most notoriously hapless franchises in baseball – carries a pressure unlike any other, especially when you’re a pitcher. Most recently, it was Stephen Strasburg rising to meet those expectations.

But Cole doesn’t have to be transcendent, or completely revolutionize the position. That’s a burden for Strasburg’s shoulders. Cole simply has to evolve into the reliable ace that has been missing from the Pirates for so many years.

In 12 starts at Triple-A Indianapolis this season, Cole is 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA. He is averaging 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings, though his walks per nine innings (3.7) is a bit high. He is prone to giving up hits, but Cole’s great fastball and reliable slider will likely keep him out of trouble while he continues to develop.

And if Tuesday night is any indication, he will certainly live up to the expectations of being the first overall pick.

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