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The Strike Zone

Building plan on display as Cole, Alvarez lead Pirates over Cardinals in NLDS Game 2

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates In addition to an RBI double and two-run homer, Pedro Alvarez scored the game's first run on a single by winning pitcher Gerrit Cole. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

On Friday, the Pirates drew even in their National League Division Series against the Cardinals, earning a split in St. Louis via a 7-1 win and sending the best-of-five back to Pittsburgh where they'll have a chance to close the series out at home. Leading the way for the Bucs were Gerrit Cole and Pedro Alvarez, two former first-round picks who serve as a reminder of the much-improved drafting that has helped the club emerge from 20 consecutive losing seasons.

The first overall pick of the 2011 draft out of UCLA, Cole -- making his first postseason start following an abbreviated rookie season of 19 starts -- threw six strong innings against the league's most potent offense, and drove in the game's first run to boot with a second-inning single off opposite number Lance Lynn. Dialing both his two- and four-seam fastballs up into the high 90s, and working in his changeup, slider and cutter as well, Cole needed just 86 pitches to work his six innings. In addition to eight swings-and-misses, he netted 21 called strikes, two shy of his career high, and allowed just two hits and one walk while striking out five.

After yielding a one-out double to Carlos Beltran in the first inning -- an uncomfortable reminder for Pittsburgh of the St. Louis slugger's game-breaking three-run blast off A.J. Burnett on Thursday -- Cole buckled down to retire the next 11 hitters before serving up a solo homer to Yadier Molina that trimmed the Bucs' lead to 5-1. He was so impressive that he will have to be considered ahead of Burnett for a Game 5 start -- which he would make on full rest -- if the series gets that far.

Alvarez, the overall number two pick out of Vanderbilt University in 2008, gave Cole the lead to work with and then some. In the second inning, he stroked a ground-rule double and came around to score on Cole's single. In the third, he added a two-run homer, already his second of the postseason after leading the NL with 36 during the regular season, for a 3-0 advantage. Alvarez played a smaller part in two other rallies as well. His walk in the fifth inning chased Lynn and immediately preceded an RBI single by Russell Martin that increased Pittsburgh's lead to 5-0, while his grounder to second base in the seventh advanced Marlon Byrd from second to third, from where he was able to score via Martin's sacrifice fly.

Accompanying Cole and Alvarez in Friday's lineup were two of Pittsburgh's other former first-round picks. Neil Walker, chosen 11th overall out of a Pennsylvania high school in 2004, started at second base; while he went 0-for-5, he did collect two hits in the Wild-Card Game win over the Reds, including an RBI double. Andrew McCutchen, also an 11th overall pick one year after Walker, went 1-for-4 in Game 2 after contributing two hits of his own in the Wild-Card Game.

That quartet of first-round selections has been integral to the Pirates' success this year. The 26-year-old McCutchen hit .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers, 27 steals, and 8.2 Wins Above Replacement, the league's second-highest total among position players; he's the odds-on favorite to win the NL MVP award. The 27-year-old Walker hit .251/.339/.418 with 16 homers, seven of them in September, and thanks to improved defense, finished with 3.9 WAR, fourth among the team's position players. The 26-year-old Alvarez hit .233/.296/.473, and did solid defensive work at the hot corner en route to 3.4 WAR, fifth among the Bucs' position players.

The 23-year-old Cole, who didn't debut until June 11, delivered a 3.22 ERA and 7.7 strikeouts per nine in 117 1/3 innings. Of his 19 starts, 14 were quality, including his last eight. He reached triple-digit velocity 22 times according to the data from Brooks Baseball and Pitch Info -- an MLB-high among starters -- and missed an increasing number of bats as he settled into the Pirates' rotation. After striking out just 14.5 percent of hitters through his seven first-half starts, he struck out 25.2 percent in 12 second-half starts, relying less on his sinker and more on his slider and four-seamer.

Manager Clint Hurdle kept Cole on a short leash with regards to pitch counts — the better to keep him pitching into October — but also developed a quick trust of his young stud, to the point that Cole was penciled in to start the final game of the regular season until the Pirates clinched homefield advantage over the Reds the day before. Given the way Burnett was blown off the mound during a seven-run third inning in Game 1 on Thursday, Pittsburgh might have been better off starting Cole in the opener instead, though no matter how it happened, coming out of Busch Stadium with a split is no small achievement.

The success of the Pirates' quartet of first-rounders stands in stark contrast to their drafting mistakes of the past, mistakes that went a long way toward prolonging the team's dry spell. From 1995 through 2002, the Pirates had top 10 picks in six out of eight years, the most valuable of which was 1996 overall number one Kris Benson. Bobby Bradley, the number eight pick in 1999, never reached the majors. Chad Hermanson (10th in 1995), J.J. Davis (eighth in 1997), Jon Van Benschoten (eighth in 2001) and Bryan Bullington (first in 2002) accumulated a combined −8.6 WAR in the major leagues. They were terrible choices.

Bullington, chosen for his signability rather than his elite talent, was taken one pick ahead of B.J. Upton, five picks ahead of Zack Greinke and six picks ahead of Prince Fielder. Brad Lincoln and Daniel Moskos, pitchers chosen with the fourth picks in 2006 and 2007, respectively, accumulated a combined 0.8 WAR in the majors. When the Bucs selected Lincoln, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer were still on the board. Moskos was taken one pick before Matt Wieters and six spots ahead of Madison Bumgarner. And so on.

Cole, Alvarez, McCutchen and Walker haven't lifted the Pirates all by themselves, of course. Further down the draft in recent years, they picked up shortstop Jordy Mercer and lefty relievers Justin Wilson and Tony Watson, all of whom played significant supporting roles this year. Left fielder Starling Marte, who homered on Friday, is an international signing out of the Dominican Republic. Trades for Burnett, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke -- the latter two of whom were acquired in the same 2009 deal with the Braves -- went a long way toward building a surprisingly strong rotation. Trades for Mark Melancon and Bryan Morris helped round out one of the league's strongest bullpens, and the August acquisitions of Byrd and Justin Morneau helped shore up glaring weaknesses late in the year and were the envy of since-fired Reds manager Dusty Baker. Pittsburgh also hit the jackpot with this past winter's smart free agent signings of Martin and Francisco Liriano. Its closer, Jason Grilli, was originally picked up off the scrap heap.

Any team needs a mix of such acquisition methods to build a winner, but the draft is the primary pillar of most success. Even the largest investments in bonuses pale in comparison to the dollars handed out — and often squandered on — free agents, and the resulting talent is under club control for six years at the major league level, allowing even small-market teams to field affordable contenders. Indeed, the Pirates ranked 20th in the majors in Opening Day payroll this year at $79.6 million, the fourth-lowest figure among the 10 playoff teams, and they have just under $32 million committed for next year, with more first-round talent on the way in 2010 number two pick Jameson Taillon, who could join the rotation, and 2009 number four pick Tony Sanchez, a catcher who debuted this year and could serve as Martin's backup next year. In other words, this crop of players should continue paying dividends.

For once, though, the Pirates' future is taking a backseat to their present. They'll send Liriano to the mound on Sunday to face the Cardinals' Joe Kelly, in hopes the lefty can follow Tuesday's script by dominating in front of a frenzied PNC crowd and move Pittsburgh within one win of the NLCS.

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