Five days ago, Gerrit Cole took the mound against the Brewers and before the game started, I wrote that I thought it'd be awfully appropriate for him to get the Pirates' 81st win. If you had told me that night that Cole would, in fact, help the Pirates to win 81 and that he'd also have a shot at getting them win 82, I would've been awfully concerned. And yet here we are.
I know that Cole frustrates a lot of Pirate fans, especially because the strikeouts aren't quite there for him this year and he struggles to finish hitters off from time to time. All of those concerns are valid (and I share them), but I think Cole's been fascinating to watch all year. One of the biggest concerns about him coming into this season is that his fastball had a tendency to flatten out, particularly late in games or when he moved it up on the zone. Whenever he serves up a bunch of foul balls people start complaining about his "flat" fastball, but I think that criticism is misguided; Cole's been a ground ball machine this year (his GB rate sits right at 50% and his HR/9 is 0.7 — you can read more about his groundball tendencies in this nice story at FanGraphs) and he's mixed a two-seamer in with that 98 mph four-seamer that he seems to throw with laser precision pretty nicely. His other pitchers (mainly the slider and the change, but the curveball, too) are inconsistent, but occasionally brilliant. Whenever I watch Cole pitch this year, I get the feeling that I'm watching the earliest stages of something really good. I know some people wanted him to be Matt Harvey or Stephen Strasburg right out of the gate, but Cole's always been a bit of a project and I've really liked everything I've seen from him this year.
That said, he does seem to be a little bit gassed at this point int he season, and I'm relatively concerned about him facing Texas's lineup in Texas's ballpark against Yu Darvish. It seems like every time Darvish is on the mound this year, he takes a no-hitter into the sixth or seventh innings. He strikes out hitters in bushels, too (240 in 179 2/3 innings this year), and that's a pretty terrifying thing with the lineup that the Pirates field on most nights. His one weakness this year is a tendency to give up some home runs, so I think that the Pirates' best shot is to hope that if Darvish does serve up a homer, they manage to at least get some people on base for it.
It goes without saying that this series is huge for the Pirates. I think they can make up some ground in the eight games that come after it, but it's really important that they limit the amount of ground that needs to be made up in those eight games. That probably means two wins in Texas. Cole, Liriano, and Burnett are starting, so it's not impossible, no matter what you might think of these last four games. First pitch tonight is at 8:05.