Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle faced a difficult decision following his team’s 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series: Trust a struggling veteran to start Wednesday’s deciding Game 5, or play the hot hand of a rookie.
Hurdle announced on Monday that veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett would be skipped in the rotation in favor of rookie Gerrit Cole as the starter for Game 5 of the NLDS in St. Louis.
Hurdle’s decision to start the 23-year-old Cole in the win-or-go-home game isn’t entirely surprising. In Game 2 of the NLDS at Busch Stadium, Cole held the Cardinals to one run on two hits over six outstanding innings. It marked the team’s sixth consecutive win in a game started by Cole. Burnett, on the other hand, was shelled in Game 1, allowing seven runs over two-plus innings.
It's a difficult decision, because [Burnett] has meant so much, we've asked so much of him while he's been here… A.J. wants the ball every day he's scheduled to pitch. That's one of the things that's gotten him to this point in his career and having the success that he's had. You want to treat men professionally. Sometimes we don't agree on things. We have to find a way to get this together to give our team the opportunity to win in all aspects.
Since the beginning of September, every subsequent start has been the most important of Gerrit Cole’s promising career. And, to put it simply, the right-hander represents the Pirates’ best chance at winning Wednesday’s game.
Game 2: A Quick Review
Making his first career postseason start, as well as his first against the Cardinals, Cole shut down a dangerous St. Louis offense over six innings, allowing one earned run on two hits and a walk with five strikeouts.
Cole’s success in the outing was a direct result of consistently getting ahead in the count, as he threw a first-pitch strike to 13 of 21 hitters and ultimately retired all but two of them.
After using his fastball 64.63 percent of the time during the regular season, Cole threw the pitch only 54.65 percent of the time in Game 2 (47 of 86 pitches), according to Brooks Baseball. Despite the Cardinals’ collective success against fastball this season, he was highly effective with his heater—which was clocked as high as 101.9 mph, via Brooks Baseball—in the outing, throwing the pitch for a strike 61.7 percent of the time while commanding it to each quadrant of the zone. He also threw it first pitch to 13 hitters, including nine over the first three innings.
However, Cole’s feel for sequencing his secondary arsenal (changeup/curveball/slider) is what made him almost unhittable over six innings on Friday. The rookie purposely showed his change and both breaking balls to most hitters while working off his fastball during the first trip through the order.
Over the course of the outing, Cole threw 27-of-39 secondary offerings for a strike (69.2 percent), which was aided by 19 swinging strikes, five of which were whiffs. And when he was either even or ahead in the count, the right-hander did an outstanding job of getting hitters to expand the strike zone:
Game 5: What to Expect
Even though the Cardinals have now experienced what Gerrit Cole is all about, it’s not guaranteed that they’ll have him figured out for Round 2 on Wednesday.
Gerrit Cole is the rare breed of pitcher capable of shutting down the most potent offense on a given night. The right-hander is the epitome of a power pitcher, boasting a fastball that registers in the upper 90s and even bumps triple digits deep into starts. However, when he’s on his game, Cole is more than just a guy with a big fastball.
Should Gerrit Cole or A.J. Burnett start Game 5 of the NLDS?
Beyond the 80-grade heater, Cole features a wipeout slider in the upper 80s and a mid-80s changeup with late fading action to the arm side. He has also shown increased confidence in his curveball over the last month-and-a-half, another power offering thrown in the low- to mid-80s with downer break, though it’s still his least developed pitch. In Game 2 of the NLDS, his entire arsenal was on full display as he and catcher Russell Martin executed a specific plan of attack.
Considering the Cardinals offense has struggled to produce runs following its seven-run outburst against Burnett in Game 1, Cole (and Martin) will presumably employ a similar game plan on Wednesday. If he can consistently get ahead in the count and utilize his full repertoire of pitches from the onset of the game, the 23-year-old has the chance to be equally, if not more, successful. However, if things start to go south in the outing, expect Hurdle to give Cole a quick hook with the season on the line.