Cards face Pirates’ hottest starter in must-win Game 2 for Pittsburgh

ST. LOUIS — All together now: It was only one game.

Keep going: The Pirates (or any Game 1 losers) are a resilient bunch.

“We’ve lost a few games like this this year,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said following Thursday’s 9-1 defeat, during which his team had almost as many errors (three) as hits (four). “What we’ve been good at is just moving on.”

And in case you need a reminder about how suddenly a playoff series can change: As big as winning Game 1 for the Cardinals was, a win by the Pirates on Friday afternoon will send Pittsburgh home with the split it needed in St. Louis.

For what is essentially a must-win game for the Pirates, they will start rookie right-hander Gerrit Cole. While he has made just 19 starts in the big leagues, the Pirates are in good hands.

Cole was their best starter down the stretch, going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in five September starts. He became somewhat of a stopper by twice ending three-game losing streaks. After the Pirates were swept in St. Louis in early September, the next night Cole went to Texas and beat the Rangers with seven scoreless innings.

He will be well rested, having not pitched since beating the Cubs 10 days ago. He also fared well on the road, with a 2.38 ERA and 4-2 record in seven starts.

And this will be the first time he has faced the Cardinals, a team that has been known to struggle against pitchers it hasn’t seen.  

“I don’t think that it’s an advantage that I haven’t seen them, and I don’t think they view it as one, either,” Cole said.  “It’s playoff baseball. Anything goes.”

A 23-year-old Southern Californian, Cole is sort of a Pirates version of Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and Carlos Martinez. As the first pick in the 2011 draft out of a big-time school (UCLA), he actually has a greater pedigree than Wacha, who was taken 19th out of Texas A&M in 2012. At 6 feet 3, 235 pounds, Cole compares size-wise with the 6-5, 250-pound Lynn, who will start opposite him Friday. With a fastball that averaged 96.1 mph and has touched triple digits, Cole has a fastball to rival Martinez. His soft stuff, however, remains a work in progress.

Cole entered the season as Baseball America’s No. 7 prospect, ranked one spot behind Cardinals right-hander Shelby Miller. He’s as grounded as the Cardinals’ rookies, too, as you could see when he skipped out on the Pirates’ Wild Card celebration Tuesday night to throw his normal bullpen.

“That kept me on the same routine, and I think that was important for me to feel comfortable going into this,” said Cole, who was scratched from his final regular-season start. “With all that’s gone on in the last couple of weeks, it’s really important for me to stay on the same routine and try to mirror it as much as I can so that I’m able to treat it kind of like any other game, even though we all know it’s not.”

After A.J. Burnett’s dismal outing in Game 1, you wonder if the Pirates would come back to him if the series ends up going to a Game 5. He now has made seven starts against St. Louis this season, including three since Aug. 15 at Busch Stadium, where he has not been able to last five innings. He has given up 17 runs in a total of 9 1/3 innings in those three outings.

“I’m not going to get out there,” Hurdle said Thursday when asked if he could turn again to Burnett. “There’s no sense to. We might not play a Game 5, couple different reasons why.”

Indeed, before contemplating a possible Game 5, the Pirates need Cole to step up in Game 2. Keep this in mind, though. He would be on regular rest if a Game 5 is needed.
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