What a 82 Buccos Victory, love these guys! You know #21 Roberto and #8 Pops are smiling down on us, now lets go get the division!
— Neil Walker (@NeilWalker18) September 10, 2013
Neil Walker is a local kid, went to high school in Gibsonia, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb. He's just old enough to remember the Pirates' last winning season in 1992 -- he would have been 7 years old -- and he clearly appreciates the history of a once-great organization.
The Pirates finally won their 82nd game of the season, and it's not just another win, even if the Pirates are on their way to their first playoff appearance since Barry Bonds left for the West Coast. It clinched a winning season but it was also how that winning season was clinched: Behind the right arm of Gerrit Cole, who was 2 years old in 1992, and who just outdueled the Rangers' Yu Darvish 1-0 in one of the more intriguing pitching showdowns of 2013. (Interleague play among playoff contenders in September will definitely take some getting used to.) Pittsburgh's lone run came in the top of the seventh inning on back-to-back doubles by Marlon Byrd and Pedro Alvarez; the rookie Cole then retired the Rangers 1-2-3 in the bottom of the seventh and Tony Watson and Mark Melancon completed the shutout.
I hadn't watched Cole in a while and came away much more impressed than I was by him earlier in the season, when Cole flashed that 100-mph fastball but wasn't generating many strikeouts and didn't dominate. Statistically, it was easily the best start of his career: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 9 SO. His Game Score was 78, better than his previous best of 72 against the Nationals on July 23.
What Cole showed on this night, however, was excellent command of the fastball. He threw 56 fastballs out of an efficient 92 pitches, 75 percent of them for strikes. He averaged 96.1 mph with the heater, topping out at 99, and used it set up his breaking stuff to get those nine strikeouts -- five on curveballs, one on a slider, one on a change, and two via the ol' No. 1.
Focusing on strikeouts also discounts Cole's positives: He has walked just 21 batters, with a walk rate of 5.4 percent. For sake of comparison, Felix Hernandez is at 5.3 percent and Clayton Kershaw at 6.0 percent. He limits extra-base hits; among pitchers with at least 90 innings, he's tied for 19th in lowest slugging percentage allowed. He's been efficient, throwing more than 100 pitches just once in his 16 starts while still averaging an acceptable 6.15 innings per start (Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez has averaged 6.14).
Most importantly, he looked poised and confident out there, in what was a fairly big game considering the opposing pitcher and that the Pirates had just played an awful weekend of baseball in St. Louis. I especially liked that he wasn't rattled in the sixth inning when the Rangers pulled off a double steal to put runners at second and third with Adrian Beltre up. Cole fired a 99-mph fastball that Beltre grounded to short to escape the jam.
There are problems to worry about, of course. The Pirates' offense certainly remains a question mark, and Francisco Liriano has been alternating great starts with bad ones his past few outings. But Cole has remained a consistent presence in the middle of that rotation since his recall, allowing three runs or fewer in 14 starts, and four runs in the other two. He always gives the Pirates a chance to win.
In fact, depending on these last three weeks, he could be a candidate to start the wild-card game if the Pirates fall short of the division title. I'm sure Clint Hurdle plans to use one of the veterans, Liriano or A.J. Burnett, but there is a case to be made for Cole's consistency, especially since Hurdle would be quick to turn the game over to the Pirates' excellent bullpen anyway.
But that's down the road. The division title remains the ultimate goal and Cole just may help the Pirates get there.