Gerrit Cole was in Noah Syndergaard’s shoes in 2013, anointed the next big thing and freighted with the weight of outsized expectations.
Now in his third year in the majors, Cole is in the process of exceeding them all.
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The Pittsburgh Pirates ace-in-waiting struck out 10 over 8 1-3 dominant innings and his teammates pecked at Syndergaard just enough to pull out a 4-1 win on Friday night. Cole (6-2) gave up six hits — all singles — while lowering his ERA to 2.05.
"When he’s executing pitches, he’s as good as anybody out there," Pittsburgh catcher Chris Stewart said.
And the 24-year-old’s 50th start in the majors may have been his best. Save for a wild pitch that allowed Juan Lagares to score an unearned run in the third, Cole overwhelmed the Mets. His only hiccup came in the ninth, when he came within two outs of his first complete game only to be undone by a single and his only walk of the night.
There was no protest from Cole when manager Clint Hurdle came out to get him in favor of closer Mark Melancon. Not that Hurdle would have listened anyway.
"He was on DL twice last year," Hurdle said. "He threw 111 pitches. He had a shot to close it down. It didn’t happen there. He’ll do that one of these days."
Melancon retired the only two batters he faced for his 11th save. Stewart had two hits and an RBI for Pittsburgh. Jung Ho Kang, Pedro Alvarez and Gregory Polanco also drove in runs as the Pirates dropped New York to 7-13 on the road.
"Even up in the ninth inning, (Cole) is still throwing 97," New York manager Terry Collins said. "Slider was absolutely devastating at times in the middle of the game. We knew going in he was going to be tough to hit."
The scuffling Pirates have relied heavily on Cole to become the stopper during an uneven opening quarter of the season. Cole halted Pittsburgh’s latest slide with his longest start of the season, keeping the Mets off balance with a fastball that topped out at 99 mph and a rapidly improving breaking ball. His defense chipped in whenever the Mets appeared ready to mount a threat, turning four double plays. Stewart also threw out two runners trying to steal second base, boosting Pittsburgh’s caught stealing total to 20, the best in the majors.
"We played a game we’ve played a handful of times before and we need to play more of," Cole said. "We were crisp on both sides of the ball and got results because of it."
Syndergaard (1-2) struck out the first four batters he faced and fanned five in his third career start but surrendered four runs, three earned, in six innings. Initially called up to fill in while Dillon Gee recovers from a groin injury, Syndergaard will stay with the team when Gee comes off the disabled list as New York experiments with a six-man rotation.
"I feel like I’ve had some pretty good success here and I’m looking forward to making my next start," Syndergaard said. "It’s all about having a short memory."
Syndergaard kept pace early but allowed the bottom of the Pittsburgh lineup to peck away at him. Alvarez doubled with two outs in the second and scored when Polanco snapped an 0-for-19 slump with an RBI-single to right and Stewart followed with a double.
Pittsburgh added two more in the sixth thanks in part to a throwing error by Syndergaard and heady baserunning by Kang, who took second on a wayward pickoff attempt then stole third and scored on a sacrifice fly.
That was more than enough for Cole, who came within two outs of Pittsburgh’s first complete game since July 28, 2014.
Mets: 3B David Murphy and C Travis d’Arnaud both took live batting practice on Friday as they continue their rehab from various injuries.
Pirates: RHP Charlie Morton will return to the starting rotation Monday when Pittsburgh begins a three-game series with Miami. Morton hasn’t started a game in the majors since last September. He underwent offseason hip surgery and the rehab took longer than expected. He is coming off a solid start for Triple-A Indianapolis on Tuesday. Vance Worley (2-3, 4.17 ERA) will move the bullpen as a long reliever.
The three-game set continues on Saturday with a prime pitching matchup as New York’s Matt Harvey (5-1, 1.98 ERA) faces Pittsburgh’s resurgent A.J. Burnett (3-1, 1.38). The 38-year-old Burnett is second in the majors in ERA and is coming off seven scoreless innings in a win over the Cubs last Sunday. Harvey has not given up a run in his 16 innings while becoming the fifth pitcher in team history to surrender no runs with nine strikeouts in consecutive starts.