Steve Blass knows a thing or two about pitching, regardless of the wildness that ended his career early and has made his name, quite unfairly, synonymous with each subsequent major-leaguer who has lost the ability to throw strikes.
Blass went 78-44 in a five-year span from 1968-72 for the Pirates. He won Game 7 of the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles and was second in the National League Cy Young voting the next year.
So, when Blass, now one of his former team’s broadcasters, made a quick visit to the back row of the PNC Park press box Tuesday night to share an observation about Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole with the Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook and myself, it carried some clout.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen him,” Blass said.
That is saying something because Cole is just two years removed for a 19-win season and a fourth-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting.
Cole dominated the Chicago Cubs, who entered the game leading the major leagues with an average of 5.42 runs a game, yet came away with about as tough a loss as a pitcher can take.
The Cubs scored an unearned run in the second inning thanks to the Pirates’ daily error by a second baseman — it was Alen Hanson’s turn this time — and held on for a 1-0 victory as Kyle Hendricks and three relievers combined on a five-hit shutout.
Cole allowed just an unearned run and two hits in seven innings, striking out eight and walking none. He threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of the 24 batters he faced, got 12 of his 21 outs in three pitches or less and retired 13 batters in a row at one point.
Cole also threw 56 of his 78 pitches for strikes and only left the game because manager Clint Hurdle tried to maximize a scoring opportunity in the bottom of the seventh inning. Rookie Jose Osuna pinch hit for Cole with a runner on third base and two outs but flied out to center field.
“It was one of the best-pitched games he’s had,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He had every pitch working, he was athletic on the mound, there was finish, there was power, there was spin. All four pitches worked.”
Yet Cole’s record fell to 1-3 because the game’s lone run was unearned. Addison Russell hit a one-out double in the second inning then scored when Jason Heyward reached base on a throwing error by Hanson.
Nevertheless, it was an encouraging sign for the Pirates to see that kind of performance from the ace of their pitching staff. Cole won just seven games last year while hampered by shoulder and elbow injuries then was a lackluster 1-2 with a 4.70 ERA through his first four starts of 2017.
“It’s probably the sharpest I’ve been this year,” Cole said. “It was a matter of making quality pitches against an aggressive club that’s been swinging the bat well.”
No Pirates player is more competitive than Cole. In fact, that competitiveness can be a detriment at times as he tends to become too angry on the mound.
The look on his face following Tuesday night’s game made it clear he wasn’t happy to take an undeserved loss. Yet he said all the right things rather point fingers at his teammates.
“Guys are putting good swings on the ball,” Cole said. “It’s just the way this stuff goes sometimes. There are going to be ups and downs throughout the whole year. You can’t get frustrated.”