Pittsburgh Pirates fans are used to disappointment after 21 straight losing seasons, but Gerrit Cole’s major-league debut elicited a different emotion: hope.
The first overall draft pick in 2011 arrived in Pittsburgh with a dramatic flair, throwing six shutout innings against the defending MLB champion San Francisco Giants and driving in the first two runs of the Pirates’ 8-2 win Tuesday night at a pulsating PNC Park.
A 22-year-old 6-foot-4 righthander from southern California, Cole leaned on his famed high-90s fastball right from the start, striking out Gregor Blanco with a 99-mph offering to lead off the game. The UCLA product wouldn’t record another strikeout for a few more innings, but he had the crowd of 30,614 hanging on every pitch.
That included when the Pirates (38-26) were batting, as Cole dropped a two-run single into right-center field in the second inning, giving the home side an early edge against two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. It was the first professional hit for Cole, who entered the season regarded as one of the premier prospects in baseball.
The Giants (33-29) tagged Cole for a pair of earned runs in the seventh, but the Pirates ensured the memorable night would result in a win by scoring two in the fifth and one in the sixth off Lincecum, building a 5-0 lead by the time Cole started to wobble. Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez homered, with Alvarez collecting three RBIs to lead the club. Russell Martin and Garrett Jones each hit run-scoring singles as well.
After Tony Watson retired one of two in relief of Cole, Vin Mazzaro got the Bucs out of the seventh ahead 5-2 when he induced 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey to ground into a fielder’s choice. The Pirates tacked on three more runs in the bottom of the frame – two of which on Alvarez’ shot to the concourse beyond the right-center field bleachers – which allowed rookie righty Bryan Morris to get the final six outs.
The Pirates have won three of their last four after dropping five of six against Cincinnati and Atlanta last week. They are in a second-place tie with the Reds in the NL Central, four games behind St. Louis. Much of Pittsburgh’s success has come at home, as the club boasts a 22-11 record at PNC Park.
There was a definite home-field advantage on the North Shore Tuesday night, complete with 8,000 extra tickets sold after the Pirates announced over the weekend that Cole would be promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis. Cole finished with only two strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings, but he threw just 81 pitches (59 strikes) to get those 19 outs.
Tony Abreu earned the visitors’ only extra-base hit of the night against Cole, an RBI double that broke the shutout and chased Pirates manager Clint Hurdle out of the dugout. Cole departed to a standing ovation, much like the one he got when he came through at the plate with the bases loaded in the second, a rally started by Andrew McCutchen’s leadoff double.
Jones and Alvarez delivered run-scoring singles in the fourth, doubling the Pittsburgh lead and forcing Lincecum from the game after 102 pitches. Next inning, Marte rifled a liner over the short left-field wall, his sixth and a prelude to the monster two-run blast from Alvarez, his 14th and the capper to a 3-for-3 night.
The lone ugly moment came in the bottom of the eighth, when Giants reliever George Kontos was thrown out for intentionally hitting McCutchen. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy was also ejected by home-plate umpire Wally Bell.
Francisco Liriano will get the call for the Pirates on Wednesday night, as they look to take the series from the Giants. The visitors will counter with another former Cy Young pitcher, Barry Zito.