The Pittsburgh Pirates received a major boost last Saturday when their young starting pitcher, Gerrit Cole, made his first start in over three weeks.
The 23-year-old had been shelved with right shoulder fatigue, which had caused him to lose velocity on his fastball and yield more hits to batters.
Cole took the mound for the second time since coming off the disabled list Friday as the Pirates hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
Simply put, Cole was dominant through five innings, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out five batters.
Cole did all that on just 80 pitches, which is why fans were shocked when they saw Pirates manager Clint Hurdle walk out to home plate prior to the start of the sixth inning to make a pitching change.
According to Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cole was pulled from the game due to soreness in his right lat.
Cole made his major league debut for the Pirates in 2013, going 10-7 with an earned run average of just 3.22 that year. His efforts helped lead his organization to its first playoff appearance since 1992.
Needless to say, Cole's presence in the rotation is essential to the Pirates' chances of making a deep run at a World Series title in 2014.
In 13 starts this season, Cole is 7-4 with a 3.78 ERA. Unfortunately, he has missed a considerable amount of time already due to injury.
The Pirates' top pitcher right now, according to the depth chart on the organization's website, is Charlie Morton. Although his 5-9 record may not look good on paper, Morton has pitched very well in 2014, posting an ERA of 3.30 in 17 starts.
Their No. 2 starter is currently Cole, who will likely be at the top of the rotation in a year or so barring any catastrophic injury.
Rounding out the five-man rotation are starters Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley.
Over his last 14.0 innings pitched, Volquez has not allowed an earned run. He has brought his ERA down to a respectable 4.07 on the year, while his record sits at an even 6-6.
Still, Volquez has not been able to find consistency on the mound this season, as he has not been over .500 since starting the season 1-0 in early April.
Locke is one of those guys who has shown glimpses of greatness, only to fall back to Earth quite quickly. In the first half of the season in 2013, Locke went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA. In the second half, he went 2-5 to finish the season with an unimpressive 10-7 record.
This season, however, Locke is locked and loaded, owning a walks and hits per inning pitched of only 1.008 and an ERA of 3.46 in six starts.
Then there is Vance Worley, who has shown a lot of promise in 2014, pitching at least 6.2 innings in each of his first four starts since being called up in June.
Worley is the type of pitcher that can pitch deep into games and set his team up to win, which is why the Pirates will likely keep him in the rotation even after Francisco Liriano returns from the disabled list.
With all that being said, it is easy to see that the Pirates have a decent rotation even without Gerrit Cole. However, Cole's dominance on the mound is what puts the Pirates into the discussion of potential playoff contenders in 2014.
Without Cole, the Pirates may have to look to acquire another pitcher prior to the July 31 trade deadline. For now, we will have to wait for word on the severity of Cole's injury, but the Pirates organization couldn't have been happy about the outcome of his start Saturday.
Cole is an integral piece in Pittsburgh's starting rotation, and without him, the rotation simply isn't as effective.
On the other hand, if the injury turns out to have been just mild discomfort and Cole doesn't miss any more time, look out for the Pirates as they are fully loaded and primed for another playoff run in the second half of the season.
*Statistics Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.