In mid August, two months before he was to take the mound in a dream October pitching matchup—perhaps one of the greatest winner-take-all playoff duels of all time—Gerrit Cole sat in the visitor’s dugout at Citi Field, looked across the field toward the Mets' dugout and said, “Man, there is so much pressure to succeed over there.” He was talking about New York’s young rotation, pitching in the metropolis, and the pressure on young players today. “This rotation is just hyped beyond belief. I mean, they have no room for error here. I couldn’t imagine playing here.
“I’ve never been one to be like, ‘I wish I could play in a big market so I can get a big Nike deal because I’m in New York,’” he continued. “Well, guess what? You have to deal with another 25,000 questions over the course of a year from the 200 reporters covering you on a daily basis. Here, I’m dealing with the same four guys from two newspapers, and that’s it. And to me, that’s an advantage.”
Make no mistake: The ace of the Pirates is not one to shy away from the bright lights, and he has not exactly toiled in obscurity in Pittsburgh, where he has pitched in far more big-money games than his opponent on Wednesday, the Cubs' Jake Arrieta. But as a former No. 1 overall pick who can unleash a 100 mph fastball and as a 25-year-old who has won more games since his June 11, 2013 debut than every National League pitcher other than Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Madison Bumgarner, Cole—40–20 with a 3.07 ERA in 73 career starts—has somehow flown under the radar. In addition to his triple-digit heater he can also throw video game pitches like this. He’s a no-nonsense Southern California native, an old-school curmudgeon. While Arrieta replies to trolling fans on Twitter, Cole wouldn’t be caught dead on it. “I’m not on any of that stuff,” he growls.
Cole, who turned 25 in September, is one of a number of 25-and-under stars who are front and center this October, in a postseason that will include hyped rookies Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. As a once top prospect who faced sometimes unreasonable expectations, Cole feels a kinship with all of them. “I just think that the pressure to perform so early is huge,” he said. “There’s not a lot of opportunities for players to come up in this game, especially now with two wild cards and more teams in contention. There’s not a lot of opportunities to come up and perform without pressure. There’s no time any more for a guy to learn how to pitch. From the moment that they come up, it’s expected that they know how to handle everything from the get go—but you don’t. It’s not that easy. I certainly don’t have anything figured out.”
He had enough figured out to go 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and 202 strikeouts, setting career-bests in each of those categories as well as starts (32), innings (208) and WHIP (1.091). It was the much-anticipated breakout season in a young career that has been building to this night since the moment the Yankees drafted the Orange Lutheran High School product in the first round of the 2008 draft; they were turned down when Cole opted to go to UCLA. Three years later, he was the No. 1 overall pick by the Pirates, signing a franchise-record $8 million signing bonus. “Having that target on my back early on, looking back, I’m glad I did,” he said. “I was exposed to all the pressures at an early age, the hype, and understanding that it’s something you’re going to have to deal with your entire life. I was fortunate to start that process early on.”
Early in the minors, Cole struggled with injuries, then faced scrutiny, as his strikeout totals were somewhat pedestrian for a pitcher whose fastball had been compared to Stephen Strasburg's; for some, the low whiff rate (he struck out just 18% of hitters) was an indicator that Cole might not be as good as advertised. “It was like I was the first overall pick ever,” he says. “That stuff can get into to your head. Looking back, I'm just glad I didn't give a s--- about it. I don't care that I'm not striking out enough people out. I don't care I throw hard and you don't think I miss enough bats. I'm trying to put the ball on the ground, and it's working for me, so I'm not going to change.”
No, he’s not Arrieta, who went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA in 2015, but he’s built himself into a pitcher who is just as capable of a Bumgarner-ian postseason. Here are some reasons to believe in Cole and the Pirates tonight:
• Cole is better than ever. The difference this year has been his slider—Cole is throwing it over 20% of the time this season, up from 12% in 2014—which has evolved into a devastating weapon against lefties. Against an offense that includes southpaws Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Coghlan and Miguel Montero and switch-hitting Dexter Fowler, it will be key; lefties are batting just .155 against the pitch this season.
• He is peaking at the right time. In his last four starts, all of them with the Pirates trying to wrap up a postseason berth and secure home field advantage for the wild-card game, Cole went 3–0 with a 2.96 ERA, allowing just 25 base runners in 27 1/3 innings; he faced the Cardinals, Dodgers and the Cubs twice. On the year, Cole is 2–1 with a 2.13 ERA in four starts against Chicago, and Pittsburgh has won eight of the nine games he’s started against the Cubs in his career.
• He’s been here before. In two postseason starts, both against St. Louis in the 2013 NLDS, he allowed three runs and struck out 10 over 11 innings.
No, Gerrit Cole is not Jake Arrieta. But he’s exactly the man the Pirates want on the mound tonight.