SweetSpot: Brandon Cumpton

Cole vs. Strasburg provides Pirates hope

May, 25, 2014
May 25

Sixteen pitchers have been taken No. 1 overall since the institution of the amateur draft in 1965. Prior to Saturday’s first-ever matchup of Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole, there had been only 10 duels between former No. 1 overall picks. The last such game took place August 21, 2012, when Luke Hochevar went up against David Price. In that game, both pitchers tossed eight scoreless innings as the Royals prevailed 1-0 in 10 innings.

Given the rate at which young pitchers have been struck down this season (while certainly not forgetting Strasburg’s own Tommy John experience), it’s a treat when we can anticipate a meeting such as this. One could only hope Cole and Strasburg could deliver something close to that Price/Hochevar.

Beyond being a showcase of two of the top young pitchers in the National League, Saturday’s Nationals/Pirates contest pitted two teams with playoff aspirations coming into 2014, but also two clubs that have struggled through the first quarter of the season. The Nationals sat at .500, having suffered significant injuries to Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez. But Strasburg, despite a 3-3 record, had been superb, with a 2.42 FIP while striking out 28.2 percent of all batters -- each statistic good for third-best in the league. His 3.38 ERA could be attributed to a lousy .358 BABIP -- the third-highest rate in the National League.

For the Pirates, winning their prior three games still left them at 21-26, seven games behind the NL Central-leading Brewers. Failing to retain A.J. Burnett after 2013 placed a lot of initial pressure on the likes of veteran journeymen Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez; the latter was designated for assignment earlier this week. Pirates starters other than Cole this season had a combined record of 3-17.

Cole himself had been a bit “hit-unlucky,” as an increase in his ground-ball rate to 53 percent had been undermined by a .317 BABIP. He’d also seen his homer-to-fly ball rate nearly double, from 8.1 percent as a rookie to 14.9 percent this year. But with Francisco Liriano (0-4, 4.86 ERA, 1.45 WHIP) tumbling back to earth after a 16-win season, Cole has become the de facto ace of the staff.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarStephen Strasburg came out firing strikes, but wound up the eventual loser in a mound showdown between first overall picks.

In the game, Strasburg sailed through his first six innings, throwing 61 of 91 pitches for strikes while yielding only four hits and striking out six. The only tally against him through those frames was a fourth-inning solo homer by Neil Walker.

In contrast, Cole was in trouble as early as the third inning, needing 27 pitches in that inning alone (including a battle with Anthony Rendon that featured five 3-2 fouls before a walk on the 11th pitch of the at-bat). With one out in the fourth, Cole tried to double up on changeups to Ian Desmond, and Desmond launched the second of those into the left-field seats to open the scoring.

Cole also seemed to be having trouble with the strike zone of rookie umpire Gabe Morales, who was in only his 10th major league game behind the plate. With two outs in that same inning, Cole threw two back-to-back two-strike pitches to Nate McLouth that appeared to claim the plate, only to be called balls. The following pitch saw Cole finally retire McLouth on a grounder to second, but Cole landed awkwardly finishing his delivery, and limped off the mound as the inning ended.

Cole nevertheless came back out for the fifth, but labored some more in hitting a batter, walking another and allowing two singles. The 32 pitches in that frame left him at 98 pitches going into the sixth. He regained some normalcy in the sixth, pitching around a walk to McLouth to end his night having thrown a career-high 112 pitches, and getting a no-decision for his trouble.

However, he had kept the game within reach of the Pirates’ offense. They retook the lead in the seventh off of Strasburg, with pinch hitter Jose Tabata’s sacrifice fly driving in Russell Martin and Josh Harrison’s single plating Starling Marte, who had doubled two batters after Martin. After that, the Pirates bullpen set the Nats down with no ball leaving the infield over the last three innings, and Pittsburgh had its 14th one-run victory of the year, 3-2. For the Pirates, a start like this from Cole had to be encouraging. He clearly labored at times but still gave the team six innings and a game Pittsburgh could win -- and did.

Looking forward, the Bucs bullpen, which was a crucial component of their 2013 playoff team, is going to have to match or exceed their performance this season. They threw the second-most innings in the National League last season (545⅔) and compiled the second-best ERA (2.89). With their three perfect innings tonight, their collective ERA is 2.82 (fifth-best) and they've pitched 156.2 innings, fourth-most in the league. For the Pirates to contend, they'll need Cole to continue to excel, even when he doesn't have his best stuff. But they’ll also need to find him some starting pitching help. Brandon Cumpton is rejoining the rotation as Rodriguez's replacement, but Liriano must start to show even a semblance of his 2013 performance.

As for Strasburg versus Cole after one good game, what about a rematch between these two top guns? Mark your calendars for August 15-17, as that is the next time these two clubs might offer us this particular pitching matchup.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate. You can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram.

PITTSBURGH -- Baseball has too much on its plate these days to focus exclusively on the exploits of an inspirational team in Pittsburgh. The trade deadline is coming to a head Wednesday. Brian Wilson -- aka “The Beard” -- is about to pitch his way to Chavez Ravine. And there’s still the little matter of that Biogenesis situation left to resolve. According to reports, multiple PED offenders are lining up to accept their suspensions and take a baseball sabbatical for the foreseeable future. They’re the luncheon meat in the middle of a Ryan Braun/Alex Rodriguez contrition sandwich.

Thank goodness for feel-good stories. While Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta prepare to hoist the white flag, the Buccos remain insistent on waving the Jolly Roger.
[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates fans
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPirates fans are seeing something they've been waiting 21 years for.

If the Pittsburgh Pirates keep playing this well, they just might outgrow the adjective “pesky.” Early Tuesday evening, Alex Presley hit a ricochet job off reliever Kevin Siegrist’s glove in the 11th inning to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 victory in the opening game of a doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals. After grabbing a sandwich and a beverage and changing their jerseys, the Pirates came out and beat St. Louis again, 6-0, to stretch their lead over the Cardinals to 1½ games in the National League Central.

The crowd had thinned considerably by the time Jeanmar Gomez retired David Freese on a routine grounder to shortstop for the final out of the second game. But “Let’s Go Bucs” chants still reverberated through the stands, as a reminder that Pittsburgh fans have overcome their reticence and embraced their team entering its dog day push for the playoffs.

Consider: In their past 17 dates at PNC Park, the Pirates have averaged 33,764 fans. The crowd of 32,084 for the opener of the St. Louis series set a record for a Monday night at PNC.

“We’ve had fans come in drove on the weekends,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “But it’s something else for them to come out for a doubleheader at 4 o’clock on a workday. We’ve always seen what it’s like in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. It can really be imposing when you go on the road and the place is packed. Now we have that here.”
[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPirates players have already celebrated more wins than recent Pirates teams have notched in entire seasons.

The Pirates haven’t been in first place this late in the season since they won their most recent division title in 1992. They’re 34-18 at PNC and 29-17 versus the National League Central this year. They win when Pedro Alvarez hits home runs, and when Andrew McCutchen makes sliding catches, hits home runs and gracefully and breathtakingly covers the 270 feet from first base to home plate on doubles in the gap.

Most of all, the Pirates win when they pitch well -- which is most of the time. In the first three games of a five-game series against St. Louis, the Pirates have outscored the Cardinals 17-3. Manager Mike Matheny’s lineup is batting .155 (16-for-103) with two extra-base hits thus far in the series.

If it’s not Francisco Liriano dealing for the Pirates, it’s A.J. Burnett or Jeff Locke or (feel free to take a break and consult Baseball-Reference.com) Brandon Cumpton.

When Tuesday’s makeup game created the need for an emergency starter, the Pirates recalled Cumpton, a former ninth-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, from their Triple-A farm club in Indianapolis. He throttled the Cardinals on three hits over seven innings to earn his first major league victory.

Cumpton collaborated with catcher Tony Sanchez, whose main claim to fame to this point in his career was going No. 4 overall in the 2009 draft -- 21 spots ahead of a New Jersey high school outfielder named Mike Trout. Sanchez, a Miami native and Boston College product, has been a disappointment in the minor leagues and admittedly wondered when this day would ever come. He appeared for two games as Pittsburgh’s designated hitter in June, but made his first career start behind the plate against the Cardinals on Tuesday.

“I’m coming out of the bullpen and I have people fist-bumping me and saying, ‘We love you Tony,’” Sanchez said. “For the last few days, everybody back home in Miami kept telling me, ‘This is the biggest series the Pirates have played in the last 20 years.’ I’ve got my uncle telling me, ‘It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere there.’ Like I need that.

“When I came out of the dugout, it was nerve-wracking, overwhelming, all of those things. You feel like all the eyes are on you, because I’m the guy who has struggled the most and this has been such a long road for me. It doesn’t help that you read Twitter and you know people are anticipating your first start.”

By the end of the night, when Sanchez was hugging manager Clint Hurdle and coach Jeff Banister in celebration of the shutout, he got borderline misty. “I didn’t even care that I went 0-for-3,” he said.

The Pirates will get back to the grind Wednesday night when Locke takes on Adam Wainwright. At some point in the day, they can expect GM Neal Huntington to emerge from his bunker with a trade to report or a “stand pat” proclamation. Will Huntington add a reliever to take some of the burden off a bullpen that has logged the sixth heaviest workload in the majors, or a bat to supplement an offense that’s 11th in the NL in runs scored? The Pirates have been linked off and on with the likes of Houston pitcher Bud Norris and Chicago outfielder Alex Rios. But you have to wonder how motivated Huntington is at this point to trifle with what his team has going.

Whatever moves he does or doesn’t make, the fans in Pittsburgh are finding it progressively harder to remain disengaged -- recent late-season fades notwithstanding.

“I just tell them to keep coming out,” said Hurdle, who celebrated his 56th birthday Tuesday. “We love the support. We love the colors. We love the flags. We love the chants.”

Most of all the Pirates love the winning. That feeling is becoming contagious in Pittsburgh.