For all the unbridled optimism and positivity surrounding the Cubs, they’ll still have to get through Pittsburgh Pirates ace Gerrit Cole to make their first playoff appearance since 2008 count.
The 25-year-old Pirates right-hander fired seven innings of one-run ball on Friday at Wrigley Field, limiting the Cubs to four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts. As a result, the Cubs’ celebration for clinching a playoff spot — and another time facing Cole in Oct. 7’s wild card game — will have to wait after a 3-2 loss in front of 40,432.
“It’s put up or shut up now,” Cole said. “You gotta get the job done.”
Cole threw 84 fastballs in 109 pitches against the Cubs and averaged 97.6 miles per hour on those heaters, according to BrooksBaseball.net. He’s a fastball-heavy pitcher, throwing it about two in every three pitches with an average velocity of 95.6 miles per hour in his 32 starts before Friday.
That uptick in velocity supports what manager Clint Hurdle said before the game: Cole is getting stronger instead of wilting in the first 200-inning season of his career.
“Nobody has any idea what he does in between (starts),” Hurdle said. “Nobody pays attention. All they do is count innings, most of them. He’s in a very good place right now. I think he’s dealing from a position of strength that’s going to make him better.”
This is Cole’s third year in the major leagues, and he’s handled his first significant innings increase well. Injuries limited him to 138 innings in 2014, but he’s at 201 following his Friday start. He’s lined up to pitch one more time next week, so he’ll enter the wild card game with about a 70-inning increase from his previous high.
Chris Stewart, who caught Cole’s first three outings against the Cubs before Francisco Cervelli started Friday, agreed — Cole hasn’t experienced any drop-off from his All-Star level earlier in the season.
“He’s still going strong, still confident in himself,” Stewart said. “He’s our guy that we’re going to lean on. Strength-wise, everything’s coming out normal, mentality-wise, he’s still as strong mentally as he was at the beginning of the season.”
Shutting down his team's likely wild card opponent is nothing new for Cole, who has only allowed one extra-base hit in four starts against the Cubs. He lowed his ERA to 2.13 in 25 1/3 innings and upped his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 32/4 in those games. There’s a reason why Hurdle tweaked his rotation earlier this month to line up Cole to pitch in the wild card game.
The Cubs will have to find a solution for Cole. They didn’t have one Friday afternoon.
“We knew that facing an ace with that kind of stuff, it's gonna be a grind,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “When he misses his pitches, you have to capitalize on it. ... If we play them in the playoffs, we need to do a better job.”