Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole was the club’s best pitcher in September, turning in a series of dominating starts to help the team into the playoffs.
The calendar has switched to October, but Cole doesn’t seem to mind.
The top pick in the 2011 MLB Draft threw six innings of one-run ball in Friday’s Game 2 of the National League Division Series, giving the Pirates a sturdy foundation for a resounding 7-1 victory that evened their best-of-five matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals.
St. Louis won 9-1 in Thursday afternoon’s Game 1, lending credence to an experience-is-king narrative, but less than 24 hours later the Pirates made a statement of their own, one that says the “been there, done that” factor is overrated.
Pedro Alvarez went 2 for 4 with a two-run homer, a double and a walk, while Justin Morneau collected two hits and Russell Martin drove in a pair. Pittsburgh built a 5-0 lead after 4 1/2 innings and largely cruised home behind the expert pitching of Cole.
Cole threw 56 of 86 pitches for strikes, whiffing five and walking only one. He allowed two hits before handing a 5-1 lead over to the bullpen and helping the Pirates record their second win in three postseason games this year.
Starling Marte hit a long home run in the eighth, combining with Alvarez’ two in the NLDS to give Pittsburgh three in the series and five for the week.
While Cole got off to an effective start on the mound in the first – he escaped a one-out Carlos Beltran double – he also contributed quickly with the bat. Alvarez’ book-rule double in the second set up a first-and-third, two-out situation for the 23-year-old pitcher, who smacked an RBI single up the middle to give the Pirates the lead.
Following his exploits with the bat, Cole locked in on the pitching rubber. Mixing in enough off-speed deliveries to keep the Cardinals off his two- and four-seam fastballs, the big righty retired 11 consecutive batters from the first inning through the fourth.
In the meantime, the Pirates went to work on Cards starter Lance Lynn. Although Neil Walker missed on a bases-loaded chance in the second, Pittsburgh kept pushing and plated two in the second to lead 3-0. Moreau lined a single to left field, and one out later Alvarez lined a high fastball onto the grassy batter’s eye in dead center, his second dinger in as many days. “El Toro” has 38 homers since spring training, the most in the NL.
Two more Pittsburgh runs came across in the fifth, once again instigated by Morneau. The former Minnesota Twin missed his first homer as a Pirate by two feet when he blasted a double off the left-center field wall with one out. Marlon Byrd traded places with him moments later, as his long fly bounced on the warning track in right-center and over the fence for a run-scoring double.
Lynn departed after Alvarez drew a walk to put two runners on, to be replaced by ground-ball specialist Seth Maness. Martin obliged Maness with a bouncer to the left side, but it got through to score Byrd easily from second and make it 5-0 Pittsburgh.
Yadier Molina ended Cole’s spell over the St. Louis bats with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the fifth, cutting the visitors’ lead to four and getting the home crowd energized much like it was Thursday. But Cole immediately rebounded to strike out Jon Jay and got out of the inning without further damage.
The sixth was more treacherous, starting with Adron Chambers’ long fly ball to center that Andrew McCutchen nabbed at the wall. Matt Carpenter’s walk continued the minor uprising, before Cole caught Beltran looking at 98-mph heat on the inside corner for the strikeout. Matt Holliday was up next, and he worked a 3-2 count before bouncing out to shortstop.
The Bucs missed on an opportunity to add on in the sixth when Morneau hit into a double play, but they created a run out of thin air in the seventh. Byrd’s sky-high pop-up dropped behind St. Louis third baseman David Freese to start the inning, a two-base error because of Bryd’s hustle out of the box. Alvarez’ grounder to second pushed Byrd to third, and the latter scored on Martin’s sacrifice fly to right.
Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson danced around a Matt Adams single and his first walk since July 21(!) to record a scoreless seventh, followed by Mark Melancon’s 1-2-3 eighth to hand the ball to Grilli. In between, Marte mashed his first postseason round-tripper off Shelby Miller to provide the final Pittsburgh run.
Grilli, pitching in his second straight non-save situation, allowed a double to Adams with one out but fanned Molina and Jay to end the game and even the series at 1.
The two teams will take a travel day before the series shifts to PNC Park for Game 3 on Sunday afternoon. First pitch between Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano and the Cardinals’ Joe Kelly is scheduled for 4:37 p.m.