We felt shaky as we watched Gerrit Cole warm up in the Altoona Curve bullpen last night. The soggy mound was taking the abuse of the Pitsburgh Pirates’ number one overall draft pick.
The dirt wasn’t right. And this mountain of man was making it pay.
Cole also didn’t like how he was lifting his leg before he delivered his warm up pitches. He seemed to be taking it on himself as he repeatedly lifted his left leg until he got it just right.
My son Brody noticed the focus too, hell, it’s hard not to notice anything Cole does. “He looks mad, Dad,” my eight-year old said.
I tried my best to reassure him that guys who focus so much on their profession never settle for things being just good enough. I tried to explain that this big, country strong looking, fireball throwing right hander was making as big a start as he had in his professional life going up against the best team in the Eastern League.
Brody couldn’t take his eyes off Cole, who many feel will be a Major League ace for years to come and could do a great deal to dramatically turn the tides of the downtrodden Pittsburgh Pirates franchise. The number one Bucco prospect will turn 22 years old in less than a month was fist bumping his fellow pitching staff before confidently walking down the left field line to the Curve dugout.
Considering a few hours away the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff is looking themselves in the mirror wondering where their early season success has gone, a big start by Gerrit Cole was something we wanted to see. You know, just to ease our minds should for some reason, all of this pennant chasing not work out somehow.
And deep inside shit like this always worries the hell out of me as a Bucco fan that has seen golden arm after golden arm, come and go these past 19 years. Cole has pitched well, but it’s never dominant enough for fans that have been through hell and back. Never.
But we’re here to tell you this guy is different. He really is.
Cole was popping the catcher’s glove of Ramon Cabrera with the sweeet sound that only a die hard baseball fan truly hears. When it’s your favorite teams top prospect, the first player taken overall, we think it seems to sound even louder. The crisp, striking of a baseball exploding to a dead stop in Cabrera’s glove that we heard so often last night, brought back recollections of all those smiles during spring training.
But walking from the bullpen to our seats, worry started to creeep into our thoughts.
The Trenton Thunder are the New York Yankees Double-A affiliate. You know, the team that Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter have played for in recent seasons during rehab assignments. Much like their biggest brother of the MLB world, the Thunder are sitting well atop the Eastern League standings. The team has been 25 games over .500 as recently as three games ago.
Their playoff tickets are on sale.
The Thunder are second in both hitting and pitching in the Eastern League. The team boasts three players in the top six in home runs. Their clutchy Jose Pirela is sixth in slugging and has walked off the Thunder four times this year.
The team has scored 556 runs this season in 117 games.
The Thunder have lived up to their name, crushing 140 bombs on the season, which far and away leads the Eastern League.
We had other reasons to be concerned as Cole stepped on to the rubber to throw the first pitch of the game. And this one was probably the biggest. Cole had just faced the Thunder a couple of starts ago.
As the National Anthem was eloquently sung, we couldn’t help but think that the Trenton Thunder wanted some revenge. It didn’t take long for us to see that the boys from Jersey were here to play.
Adonis Garcia (not kidding, great name) ripped the second pitch to deep right field and Adalberto Santos was turning in circles like a mountain lion under a circus tent. Dammit we thought, what a shitty start. But as the Lakemont Park roller coaster chugged by in the distance, Santos speared the ball out of the muggy air. One out.
Whew. He’s going to throw a no-hitter, we joked to ourselves.
Addison Maruszak snapped our necks with a ball hit deep to the gap in right field. Santos tracked it down in front of the 375 sign. “Shit,” the long time season ticket holder behind us muttered in the distrubingly quiet Peoples Natural Gas Ballpark, “he’s getting hit hard tonight.”
The feeling that something bad was going to happen engulfed us as Cole kicked at the pitching rubber. It was really easy to think Gerrit Cole was about to have a long night especially after David Adams broke up that no hitter with a sharply hit single and up to the plate strolled Zoilo Almonte and his 17 home runs.
But stud pitchers have a way of calming even the most negative of fans. It usually comes in the terms of being able to strikeout the other team at any time. Cole did that when he chalked up a punchout to end the inning.
The second inning was telling for Cole as he started notching up his fastball. Luke Morton who has 22 bombs this season–good for second in the Eastern League home run race, flew out to center. The 6’4″ pitcher with the super tight delivery got Kevin Mahoney swinging before he allowed a single through the left side of the infield.
Worry started creeping in again.
The kid with the cannon arm erased the doubt with a groundout to end the second inning.
The third inning was a blur. Three up. Three down. All groundouts as Cole flipped the Thunder order. It was as efficient as we have seen Cole in an inning, but it wouldn’t be the norm on this night.
In the fourth, another leadoff groundout and a whiff of the slugger Almonte was followed by a walk. Some felt Cole was getting squeezed a bit by the homeplate ump. If true, Cole didn’t show it. Emotions are something he shows very little of on the mound.
After the walk, and a visit to the mound by the pitching coach, the popping of Cabrerra’s glove started to become more pronounced. Staring at the stadium gun also started to become addicting. The pitcher every Pirates fan dreams about being dominant in the promising future rotation, started to do just that.
His velocity began to increase on the stadium gun. Yeh. Justin Verlander style. A lazy flyout to right would strand the Thunder baserunner on first.
Cole’s teammates must have felt their starter dialing it up a notch too, because the Curve erupted for four runs in the bottom of the fourth inning. An absolute bomb by Pirates 40-man roster outfielder Oscar Tejada (8) cleared the last row of bleachers in left field. Jarek Cunningham (6) followed with a shot to left center to give Cole a 4-0 lead.
After a leadoff single in the fifth, the ump rung up Jose Gil on strikes as the radar gun started consistently flashing numbers higher than we’ve ever seen in Altoona. The few rows around us began to buzz. A groundball force out was followed by a huge strikeout to end the inning.
The sixth would be the last for Cole as his pitch count was creeping up. The radar gun addiction continued as my son focused intently on it and began yelling the readings aloud to anyone who would listen.
And everyone did.
“95, 99, 86, 89!”
Unfortunately it was a leadoff walk.
But up came the Big Mac strikeout contestant of the night. And Gerrit Cole was about to make all 4,411 people in the park risk for a heart attack spike a little bit.
“90, 91, 96, 97, 96….. Dad, HE DID IT!” FREE BIG MACS FOR EVERYONE DAD!”
After the meat thirsty villagers of Curve, Pennsylvania had calmed down, Cole came right back to get the dangerous David Adams looking. But he issued another walk which caused his exit from the game after throwing 90 pitches. He lowered his ERA to 3.43 at Double-A and it dropped to 2.89 for the season as he has now pitched 109 innings.
More notably to us, Cole has pitched 11.1 innings against the lethal Trenton Thunder without surrounding a run and striking out twelve. (He owes a hat tip to Kyle Kaminska who came in to relieve Cole and strand both of his inherited runners)
The kid with the $8 million dollar cannon didn’t disappoint. It was his biggest start. Against the best in the league, and against the New York Yankees–a franchise that Cole spurned after the Bronx Bombers made him their first round pick (28th overall) out of high school in 2008.
It’s well known, the Pirates pitching staff is struggling. Cole can’t control when he will get the call to the bigs, but those things that he can control, he certainly did.
In a big way.
The walks came against hitters with pedigree. The strikeouts came against some established mashers with solid numbers.
And that lingering doubt we came to Altoona with was replaced by wildly standing to cheer Cole as he walked from the mound. We couldn’t help but think about when Cole will arrive in Pittsburgh, there is no question the guy from Newport Beach, California will sell some tickets. But before we get to far ahead of ourselves, we first owe him something.
Thanks for the Big Mac, and hope to see you again real soon.