Cole vs. Strasburg provides Pirates hope

Sixteen pitchers have been taken No. 1 overall since the institution of the amateur draft in 1965. Prior to Saturday’s first-ever matchup of Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole, there had been only 10 duels between former No. 1 overall picks. The last such game took place August 21, 2012, when Luke Hochevar went up against David Price. In that game, both pitchers tossed eight scoreless innings as the Royals prevailed 1-0 in 10 innings.

Given the rate at which young pitchers have been struck down this season (while certainly not forgetting Strasburg’s own Tommy John experience), it’s a treat when we can anticipate a meeting such as this. One could only hope Cole and Strasburg could deliver something close to that Price/Hochevar.

Beyond being a showcase of two of the top young pitchers in the National League, Saturday’s Nationals/Pirates contest pitted two teams with playoff aspirations coming into 2014, but also two clubs that have struggled through the first quarter of the season. The Nationals sat at .500, having suffered significant injuries to Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez. But Strasburg, despite a 3-3 record, had been superb, with a 2.42 FIP while striking out 28.2 percent of all batters -- each statistic good for third-best in the league. His 3.38 ERA could be attributed to a lousy .358 BABIP -- the third-highest rate in the National League.

For the Pirates, winning their prior three games still left them at 21-26, seven games behind the NL Central-leading Brewers. Failing to retain A.J. Burnett after 2013 placed a lot of initial pressure on the likes of veteran journeymen Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez; the latter was designated for assignment earlier this week. Pirates starters other than Cole this season had a combined record of 3-17.

Cole himself had been a bit “hit-unlucky,” as an increase in his ground-ball rate to 53 percent had been undermined by a .317 BABIP. He’d also seen his homer-to-fly ball rate nearly double, from 8.1 percent as a rookie to 14.9 percent this year. But with Francisco Liriano (0-4, 4.86 ERA, 1.45 WHIP) tumbling back to earth after a 16-win season, Cole has become the de facto ace of the staff.

In the game, Strasburg sailed through his first six innings, throwing 61 of 91 pitches for strikes while yielding only four hits and striking out six. The only tally against him through those frames was a fourth-inning solo homer by Neil Walker.

In contrast, Cole was in trouble as early as the third inning, needing 27 pitches in that inning alone (including a battle with Anthony Rendon that featured five 3-2 fouls before a walk on the 11th pitch of the at-bat). With one out in the fourth, Cole tried to double up on changeups to Ian Desmond, and Desmond launched the second of those into the left-field seats to open the scoring.

Cole also seemed to be having trouble with the strike zone of rookie umpire Gabe Morales, who was in only his 10th major league game behind the plate. With two outs in that same inning, Cole threw two back-to-back two-strike pitches to Nate McLouth that appeared to claim the plate, only to be called balls. The following pitch saw Cole finally retire McLouth on a grounder to second, but Cole landed awkwardly finishing his delivery, and limped off the mound as the inning ended.

Cole nevertheless came back out for the fifth, but labored some more in hitting a batter, walking another and allowing two singles. The 32 pitches in that frame left him at 98 pitches going into the sixth. He regained some normalcy in the sixth, pitching around a walk to McLouth to end his night having thrown a career-high 112 pitches, and getting a no-decision for his trouble.

However, he had kept the game within reach of the Pirates’ offense. They retook the lead in the seventh off of Strasburg, with pinch hitter Jose Tabata’s sacrifice fly driving in Russell Martin and Josh Harrison’s single plating Starling Marte, who had doubled two batters after Martin. After that, the Pirates bullpen set the Nats down with no ball leaving the infield over the last three innings, and Pittsburgh had its 14th one-run victory of the year, 3-2. For the Pirates, a start like this from Cole had to be encouraging. He clearly labored at times but still gave the team six innings and a game Pittsburgh could win -- and did.

Looking forward, the Bucs bullpen, which was a crucial component of their 2013 playoff team, is going to have to match or exceed their performance this season. They threw the second-most innings in the National League last season (545⅔) and compiled the second-best ERA (2.89). With their three perfect innings tonight, their collective ERA is 2.82 (fifth-best) and they've pitched 156.2 innings, fourth-most in the league. For the Pirates to contend, they'll need Cole to continue to excel, even when he doesn't have his best stuff. But they’ll also need to find him some starting pitching help. Brandon Cumpton is rejoining the rotation as Rodriguez's replacement, but Liriano must start to show even a semblance of his 2013 performance.

As for Strasburg versus Cole after one good game, what about a rematch between these two top guns? Mark your calendars for August 15-17, as that is the next time these two clubs might offer us this particular pitching matchup.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate. You can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram.