At some point, I stopped counting Gerrit Cole’s standing ovations Tuesday night.
One was for taking the mound at PNC Park to throw his warm-up pitches, as if every Pittsburgh Pirates fan wanted the former No. 1 overall draft pick to feel their embrace, their hope, maybe a little of their anxiety.
One was for wiggling out of a first-inning jam, to the extent that burrowing 99-mph fastballs low in the strike zone constitutes “wiggling.”
One was for what Cole said was his first hit since high school — a full-count, bases-loaded, two-run single against two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum in his first major-league at-bat.
And the last one was for it all: 6-1/3 innings, two earned runs, 81 efficient pitches, and an 8-2 victory over the defending world champion San Francisco Giants. Cole’s debut was an overwhelming success, affirming both his long-term potential and near-term importance to the organization.
“I was trying not to look up, because I felt like I was going to smile,” Cole said of the final, thunderous cheer. “And that would not have looked really hard, really cool. But it was very much appreciated. It was very hard for me to keep a stone face.”
Cole, 22, decided not to tip his cap before reaching the dugout steps. “I wasn’t going to do that unless the veterans gave me the go-ahead,” he explained. The rookie was on point about that, too. As Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin said, “When you leave the mound and you’ve got two guys in scoring position, you don’t want to bring too much attention to yourself.”
Before you get the impression Martin was being too hard on the kid, consider something else he said after the game: “He’s got the best fastball I’ve ever caught from a starter.”
Of note: Martin caught Clayton Kershaw in his 2008 debut — and many times after that.
“He locates it down in the zone,” Martin said of Cole. “It’s heavy when it comes in. It’s hard to explain. It just has that heavy feeling when you catch it. He has a four-seamer he mixes in with a two-seamer, so he’s giving different looks with his fastball. It jumps on you, anywhere from 95 to 98. Powerful. He hides the ball well. He’s pretty special.”
The Pirates are counting on it. For Pittsburgh to finish with its first winning record since Barry Bonds roamed left field in 1992, Cole needs to pitch his way into the company of Matt Harvey and Shelby Miller among the league’s top young starters — and do so very quickly.
This wasn’t a charming, pitch-count-controlled start buffered by diminished expectations. Cole isn’t here to blossom on his own schedule, according to developmental timetables. Effective immediately, Cole is a vital part of the Pirates’ rotation. They need what he gives them.
Of course, he hits 99 on the radar gun. Every team wants that. But Cole’s efficiency might be even more valuable to the Pirates, whose starters entered Tuesday with the second-fewest innings pitched of any staff in the National League.
Starters Wandy Rodriguez and Jeanmar Gomez are on the disabled list. Charlie Morton is about to make his first big-league start in more than one year. Key relievers Justin Wilson, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli have had heavy workloads.
The circumstance calls for a durable starter, capable of winning games in a way that rests the bullpen. Cole is that. On good nights, Cole’s relatively high contact ratio (seven hits, only two strikeouts) affirms the wisdom of the pitch-to-contact approach he honed at Triple-A. On bad nights, he might give up four runs because bloop hits fall in at the wrong times.
Obviously, Tuesday was one of the good nights. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle let Cole bat for himself in the top of the seventh — he received another ovation then, by the way — and there was no second-guessing the decision: Cole had thrown only 72 pitches through six innings.
“Only one three-ball count,” Hurdle noted afterward.
There’s no standing ovation for a statistic like that. But that is what matters most to the Pirates. They are holding a playoff spot in June, and Cole is the type of man who can help them keep it.