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The news was lost during the nine-game winning streak that gave the Pittsburgh Pirates, stunningly, the best record in baseball. Pitcher Wandy Rodriguez received an injection in his ailing elbow earlier this week and probably won’t pitch in the big leagues again until at least early August. That little bulletin deserved so much more attention.
The Pirates are going to need Rodriguez, who hasn’t pitched in exactly a month, if they are going to keep winning at such an amazing rate. They are going to need starter A.J. Burnett, who hasn’t pitched since June 8 because of a calf injury but could get the ball Sunday against the Cubs in Chicago. It’s incredible the Pirates have been so successful without them. It’s incredible they are 52-32 even after their 6-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies Thursday at PNC Park, their first series loss in a month.
This much we can say with some certainty:
Gerrit Cole is no Burnett or Rodriguez. He’s no Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano or Charlie Morton at this early stage of what should be a long, lucrative career for him. He might not even be Jeanmar Gomez.
Cole was the loser Thursday, his first after becoming the Pirates’ first pitcher in 106 years to win the first four starts of his big-league career. Surely, you remember Nick Maddox, who did it in 1907? Anyway, Cole’s wins created an absurd level of hype. The fact he’s a No. 1 draft pick and an $ 8 million bonus baby added to the attention. So did his fastball, which you might have heard has hit 100 mph.
But Cole hasn’t been all that good, at least not compared to the Pirates’ other starters. He was every bit as lucky as he was good in those first four starts. The Pirates hitters, who often have struggled to score runs, scored 8, 6, 5 and 10 for him.
Cole wasn’t so fortunate against the Phillies, although Andrew McCutchen’s two-out, two-run single in the third inning gave him a 2-0 lead. Cole didn’t exactly fool the Phillies. Two of their first three hitters — Ben Revere and Jimmy Rollins — singled off him only to be thrown out trying to steal second by catcher Russell Martin. Is it just me or did it seem as if Martin threw out as many runners in that first inning as Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry did all of last season?
Cole made his best pitch, blowing a 98-mph fastball by Rollins with runners on second and third in the third. But he gave up a two-out single to Revere in the fifth that cut the Pirates’ lead to 2-1. Then, he couldn’t get out of the sixth after giving up a one-out walk and single. He allowed eight hits in 51/3 innings.
It’s easy to blame reliever Vin Mazzaro for not picking up Cole. Sunday, in a 2-1 win in 14 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers, Mazzaro became the Pirates’ first relief pitcher to throw five perfect innings in 94 years. Of course, you remember Elmer Ponder? Four days later, though, on a gorgeous holiday afternoon, Mazzaro didn’t get an out and set off a rather loud “Let’s Go, Phillies!” chant that seemed ridiculously out of place at PNC Park in this magical Pirates season. Delmon Young lined his first pitch for a single to left. Kevin Frandsen blooped his second pitch for a run-scoring single down the right-field line. Mazzaro was done after giving up a two-run single to Carlos Ruiz and hitting pitcher Cole Hamels.
Funny game, baseball.
Cole certainly didn’t blame Mazzaro after the game. He knew he didn’t deserve a win. “I’ve got to get ahead of guys better,” he said. “I guess this was just one of those days.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle went out of his way to defend Cole, which hardly was surprising. “He continues to pitch with an edge. He continues to compete and learn every day.”
There is no doubt Cole is learning and little doubt he will get much better. See the paragraph above mentioning the promise for him of a long, lucrative career. But the big leagues might not be the best place for Cole to learn for the Pirates. General manager Neal Huntington has said all along that the team might have rushed Cole up because of its injuries. He has done his best to downplay the Cole hype.
There was outrage all over town a few weeks ago at the suggestion the Pirates could send Cole back to Triple-A to slow his Super 2 salary-arbitration clock. Huntington said the team wouldn’t make a decision based solely on money, but he is no fool. Sending Cole to the minors for even a week or 10 days could save the franchise millions. Here’s guessing owner Bob Nutting would be all for that.
But if Cole doesn’t start pitching better, it will be an easy call to send him down when Rodriguez is ready or even sooner if the Pirates make a trade this month for a starter. The numbers don’t lie. Cole’s ERA is 3.94. Compare that to the ERAs of Rodriguez (3.59), Burnett (3.12), Morton (2.50), Liriano (2.23) and Locke (2.12). Cole’s WHIP is 1.31. Compare that to Liriano (1.29), Morton (1.22), Locke (1.15), Burnett (1.13) and Rodriguez (1.12).
And Gomez? His ERA is 2.70, his WHIP 1.14. He will get the start Sunday against the Cubs if Burnett isn’t quite ready to go.
Is it really so outrageous to suggest Gomez should get the start Tuesday night at PNC Park against the Oakland Athletics in place of Cole?