When the Pirates tabbed UCLA starter Gerrit Cole with the first pick of the 2011 draft, they no doubt envisioned him doing exactly what he did on Monday night: Playing the stopper and leading his team to the winner's circle while going toe-to-toe with the game's best pitchers. In the most important start of his young major-league career, the 23-year-old righty delivered seven shutout innings opposite the Rangers' Yu Darvish, helping the Pirates halt a four-game losing streak and secure their 82nd win, thus guaranteeing the franchise its first winning season since 1992.
Cole held the Rangers to just three hits, all singles, over the course of his 92 pitches and setting a new career high with nine strikeouts. He exceeded 13 pitches in an inning and allowed multiple runners on base only in the sixth, when he walked Elvis Andrus and Alex Rios, and saw the two advance on a double steal; Andrus had stolen second base prior to Rios' walk as well. Cole recovered by inducing Adrian Beltre to ground out to shortstop on his 30th pitch of the inning.
To that point, Darvish had matched zeroes with Cole while allowing just two hits and one walk while striking out six. With two outs in the seventh, he served up back-to-back doubles to Marlon Byrd and Pedro Alvarez to plate the game's only run. While he escaped by getting Russell Martin to ground out, he departed the game after that while having thrown just 81 pitches due to a cramp in his right leg. From the Twitter feed of Fox Sports Southwest's Anthony Andro:
After Tanner Scheppers shut the Pirates down in the seventh, Pittsburgh nearly added a second run in the eighth inning against Neal Cotts, who yielded a one-out triple to Andrew McCutchen. Two pitches later, with the infield drawn in, Justin Morneau hit a chopper to second baseman Ian Kinsler, who threw to catcher A.J. Pierzynski in time to nab McCutchen at the plate. Despite keeping the score close, the Rangers couldn't capitalize. Mark Melancon retired them in the ninth inning on just eight pitches, yielding only a two-out single to Beltre.
Cole's performance marked his fifth straight quality start and his first scoreless outing in the major leagues, lowering his ERA to 3.48. His 15 swinging strikes — six via slider, four via cutter, the rest via fastballs — marked a career high as well as a continuation of a trend towards missing more bats. After striking out just 14.5 percent of hitters through his seven first-half starts, he's struck out 22.7 percent in his nine second-half starts, relying less on his sinker and more on his slider and four-seamer. The average strikeout rate for NL starters is 18.9 percent.
Cole also set a career high with 23 called strikes on the night, and arguably those were even more important. A whopping 15 of them came on the first pitch of the plate appearance, and in all, he got 21 first-pitch strikes to the 25 hitters he faced.
With Tony Wilson and Melancon finishing the job, the Pirates shut out the Rangers at home for the first time since July 25, but their fifth time all season, two shy of the major-league lead. As for Darvish, Monday marked his fifth straight start in which the Rangers have lost. They’ve scored all of 11 runs in those five turns. Three times this year, they’ve failed to score a run in his turns.
Although the Rangers have made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and the Pirates have gone a full two decades without doing so, the two teams came into Monday's game — the first of a three-game set in Arlington — sharing similar September fates. Both had gone 2-5 on the month, sliding out of first place in their respective divisions and into the top wild-card slot.
The Pirates won their 81st game last Tuesday, ensuring themselves of their first season at .500 or better since 1992, but they followed by dropping four straight — one to the Brewers and three to the Cardinals, all on the road — being outscored 35-13. With Saturday's 5-0 loss, the closest game of the four, they handed first place in the NL Central to the Cardinals. With St. Louis (83-60) idle on Monday night, the Pirates pulled back to within a game of first, and they gained a game on the Reds (82-63), who lost 2-0 to the Cubs. On the heels of a three-game sweep of the Mariners, the Rangers led the A's in the AL West by 2 1/2 games as of August 28, but they came into Monday having dropped three straight series to the Twins, As's and Angels, all by 2-1 margins. The last of their losses to the A's left them tied for first for the sixth time this year. At 81-62, they're now two games behind Oakland, their largest deficit since Aug. 4. They do lead the Rays in the wild-card race by 2 1/2 games, and have a four-game cushion over the Indians and Orioles, the next two teams in the wild-card standings.