ST. LOUIS — Beware, Cardinals. That might have been your first encounter with Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole but you can be sure it won’t be the last.
One of the game’s prized pitching prospects, Cole has been in the majors for only a few months but the just-turned 23-year-old figures to have a long future in the NL Central. The Cardinals, however, might not have to wait til next season for another look at the hard-throwing rookie.
After the way Cole shut them down in a 7-1 victory Friday afternoon to even their NL Division Series at a game apiece, the Cardinals could face him again next week. Like Wednesday at Busch Stadium in Game 5 of the NL Division Series.
If you were Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, would you really send out A.J. Burnett again against the Cardinals or would you put your season in Cole’s hands? It would take me less time to make that decision than it did to type this sentence.
Don’t think I’m jumping too far ahead by bringing up Game 5, either. With Cardinals killer Francisco Liriano set to start Game 3 Sunday in a PNC Park that could set a record for rowdiness, the Pirates will be heavy favorites to take a one-game lead in the best-of-five. The Cardinals then would be counting on their version of Cole, rookie right-hander Michael Wacha, to bring the series back to Busch for the decisive fifth game. Wacha, who earned the potential Game 4 start ahead of 15-game winner Shelby Miller, will oppose Charlie Morton on Monday. Morton has faced the Cardinals three times this season and was roughed up twice, including an outing last month when he failed to make it through the second inning. Advantage Cardinals in that one.
With Lance Lynn having one of those days Friday, the Game 2 advantage might have leaned toward the Pirates no matter who they had pitched. Lynn did not look as much like the guy who finished the season with four strong starts as the guy who put up a 5.84 ERA in August. He was roughed up for seven hits and five runs in 4 1/3 innings while walking three and hitting a batter.
“I had good stuff,” Lynn insisted. “I made four bad pitches and they all went for extra-base hits. Usually you’ll get a guy who maybe fouls it off or pops it up. Today they were able to carry enough to be good for them.”
Well, there also was that RBI single he gave up to the opposing pitcher that gave the Pirates their first run. And there was the single he allowed to Justin Morneau on an 0-2 count that preceded Pedro Alvarez’s 418-foot homer to center.
No matter why or how much Lynn actually struggled, you have to wonder whether he will get another start this postseason if the Cardinals move on. You don’t have to wonder about him pitching again in this series. Even though, like Cole, he would be on full rest for a Game 5, the Cardinals would have Adam Wainwright set to go. Even if Lynn had shut out the Pirates, he’s not going to start ahead of Wainwright.
Cole, on the other hand, could get the nod ahead of Burnett, who may be playoff-tested but has been ripped by the Cardinals in his past three starts in St. Louis. Burnett, by the way, has been reaching out to assist Cole in his transition to the big leagues and would be unlikely to cause a fuss if he were passed over. Hurdle, understandably, isn’t ready to talk about Game 5.
The Pirates do not see a need to worry about Cole handling the postseason stage. He said he felt the same kind of nervousness he feels before most starts but he looked as cool as anyone on the field.
“He was calm all day, even before the game,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. “He didn’t look nervous at all. If I had an arm like his, I wouldn’t be nervous, either. But still, that age and that stage, to go out and perform like he did was huge.”
Cole let the Cardinals know who was in charge with his first pitch, a 98 mph fastball that brushed back Matt Carpenter. After Carpenter grounded out, Cole gave up a first-inning double to Carlos Beltran but then retired 11 straight. By the time the Cardinals got another hit, a homer by Yadier Molina leading off the St. Louis fifth, the Pirates had scored five times and Cole had the game under control.
“He came out very aggressive,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “He was not making a lot of mistakes and had enough horsepower if he needed to challenge somebody, he could get by with it.”
A 6-3, 235-pounder nicknamed the “Cole Train,” he still had enough in the sixth inning to throw a 100 mph fastball to Beltran and then strike him out looking with a 98 mph two-seamer.
“He’s got that effortless velocity,” Martin said. “It doesn’t look like he’s maxing out and if he keeps his mechanics all the way through, the velocity is there. He’s never really grunting out there. He has that natural arm strength.”
The Cardinals saw that up close for the first time Friday. Don’t be surprised if they get another look in five days.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.