PITTSBURGH -- Gerrit Cole's fastball is at the center of everything when it comes to evaluating what the Pirates' top pitching prospect is. And that was certainly true Tuesday night at PNC Park, where a crowd of 30,614 allowed themselves to marvel at the heat coming out of the hand of Cole, who made his major league debut a successful one largely on the strength of that pitch.
"Well, there's late life to it," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said when it was all over, Cole had his first major league win and the Pirates had prevailed, 8-2. Hurdle clearly didn't mind thinking about Cole's fastball as he sat, arms crossed and discussed it in his postgame press conference. "It's not straight as a string. There's finish to it. There was conviction. Plus there's downhill plane. It's downhill angle and it's down in the zone, and that's very hard to hit."
Oh, and right, the velocity. Cole averaged 96.8 miles per hour with the pitch, topping out with an offering of 100.1. He threw it hard early, striking out Gregor Blanco on three pitches to start the game, 96, 97 and 99. And he was still throwing hard late, starting the seventh inning with a 96 and 98 offering, and throwing his final pitch of the night, his 81st, 98 miles per hour.
So it was a big day for Cole, who not only earned his first major league win, but even worked the count to 3-2 before lacing a two-run double for his first professional hit. Not his first major league hit. His first since high school, according to Cole. That drew a standing ovation, too, like almost everything Cole did.
"It's a big night for the organization," Hurdle said. "The guys that signed him, his folks are in the stands, the player development people, the places he was along the way, the pitching coaches, the managers -- it is a village. It's a group effort. And to see a young man step up, maintain composure, compete like he did, win his first major league game in a debut -- it's special. Did I have a heightened awareness? Absolutely."
But even as the Pirates, already third in the National League in ERA, pondered whether to add Cole to that mix permanently, they had to notice how completely reliant he was on his fastball Tuesday night.
Cole threw 81 pitches. 64 were his signature four-seam fastball, 50 for strikes. Another one was his two-seam fastball. He threw 14 sliders all night, and just seven for strikes. And he threw two changeups.
As a result of that approach, Cole struck out just two hitters all night. And as the game wore on, the Giants started making better contact.
How much of this was by design, from an organization that is famous for wanting its pitchers to pitch to contact, and how much was a product of a still-developing set of secondary pitches, we'll only find out in the coming games of Cole's career.
"Just pound the zone," Cole said of his strategy Tuesday night, frequently allowing himself the smile he said he forced himself to suppress as he walked off the mound to the last of several standing ovations. "Just be aggressive. You can't say enough [about] putting hitters on their heels, when the count's always 0-1, 1-2." And the first stat Hurdle cited at his postgame presser was the number of first-pitch strikes Cole threw: 19 of 27 hitters began just that way.
And yet, armed with 0-1 counts and superior command of the fastball, 25 of 27 hitters put the ball in play. On Tuesday night, that proved to be a good thing, with Pedro Alvarez making a number of notable plays at third base, and Neil Walker ranging far up the middle to rob Hunter Pence of a sure hit, thanks in part to a great scoop from Garrett Jones at first.
Ace pitchers get strikeouts for a reason: those are certain outs. And ever since Cole pitched at UCLA, his fastball had seemed to promise more than a guy who gets opponents to put the ball in play, with the related swings in performance that usually brings. But in Triple-A, his strikeout rate this season was 6.2 per nine, and just 5.5 per nine since May 1. So the contact issue hadn't been addressed even before his debut.
It took a trip to the mound from Russell Martin in the second inning to help get Cole out of his most difficult jam of the evening, when he hit Gregor Blanco with a pitch to load the bases with two out.
"Bases loaded in the second? I said I better make a pitch, or we're screwed," Cole said to laughter. More seriously, he credited Martin for helping him find his way out of trouble.
"He just said relax, and take a couple deep breaths," Cole recalled. "When you're in a situation like that, you do the best you can, you try to tell yourself, just try to make quality pitches. Don't try to change anything."
But interestingly, Cole did change. He threw a fastball for strike one to Scutaro, then followed with a pair of sliders. The first froze Scutaro; he hit the second one weakly to right field for the third out of the inning.
That kind of adjustment came infrequently Tuesday night, and by the latter innings, the Giants were jumping on even the livlier fastball offerings from Cole. That 81st pitch of the night, Cole's last, was 98 miles per hour. It was also laced by Tony Abreu into right field for a double.
After the game, Hurdle wasn't brooking any discussion about whether a fastball-intensive approach could be sustainable for Cole, if he's to become a frontline starter.
"I think we'll just let him pitch again," Hurdle said. "It was his first outing up here. Just let him pitch. That's what I'm going to keep telling him anyway, you can go anywhere you want to go when he gets up here."
On this night, anyway, it certainly worked. And at 22, Cole has plenty of time to learn how to integrate that slider, and command his changeup. Tuesday night was about a young man celebrating his first encounter with the major leagues, and a successful one.
"I mean, I could have been more aggressive at times," Cole said. "I had a lot of count leverage. But the offspeed, and the other stuff wasn't at its best. But we just made plays. Every fly ball was caught."
Shortly thereafter, his press conference ended, and, escorted by Pirates media relations, disappeared down a back corridor of PNC Park to go celebrate with his family.