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Gerrit Cole strikes out six hitters in Double-A debut

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Gerrit Cole pitched five solid innings and allowed two runs in his first Altoona start.

Gerrit Cole, the Pirates' top pitching prospect, still has plenty to adjust to after his Wednesday debut for the Altoona Curve: a new league, better competition, and the "Big Mac Hitter." Despite getting two strikes on New Britain center fielder Aaron Hicks in all three at-bats, Cole couldn't K the designated free-hamburger player to satiate the fans chanting "BIG MAC! BIG MAC!"


Not that Cole was concerned about hamburger coupons, as the 21-year-old pitched a solid outing in his first Double-A game. The Pirates' number-one overall pick allowed two runs and five hits in five innings, and struck out six Rock Cats hitters with 52 strikes on 74 pitches.

 

"You gotta keep hitters off balance, no matter how hard you throw," Cole said. "It's not about velocity anymore, it's about location and changing speeds."

 

The right-hander, one year removed from UCLA, has recorded triple digits with his fastball before, and tonight hit 99 miles per hour in the 5th inning while sitting at 93-96 mph. Cole also got some whiffs with a power changeup (88-89 mph) that sunk below hitters' bats and impressed pitching coach Jeff Johnson.

 

"The biggest thing I want guys to be able to do at this level is be able to throw a changeup and have confidence in throwing it," Johnson said. "I know he has great offspeed, his breaking stuff is going to be good -- but the thing I'm impressed with is his use of the changeup."

 

Cole generated nine swings-and-misses with a good mix of fastballs and changeups, and got ahead of hitters with 15-of-20 first-pitch strikes.

 

"That's huge. That's outstanding," Johnson said. "I think the Major League average is about 60 percent. So anything we can do better than that is what we're shooting for."

 

EARLY LEAD

 

His new team gave Cole a substantial lead in the 1st inning. New Britain starter Brett Jacobson came out wild, hitting Robbie Grossman and Matt Curry with pitches and walking Brock Holt. Holt scored on a wild pitch, and then Quincy Latimore smacked a three-run home run to left-center (his 7th of the season) to give Altoona an early 4-0 advantage.

 

"It gives anybody more confidence," Cole said on the four-run lead. "It allows you to be more aggressive in the zone and keep the pressure on them throughout the game."

 

Cole capitalized on the run support, retiring all nine New Britain hitters his first time through the lineup. His first blemish came in the 4th as Hicks (Minnesota's No. 4 prospect, according to Baseball Prospectus) led off with a double to right field. After Cole struck out Chris Herrmann and got Oswaldo Arcia to fly out, Chris Colabello drove in Hicks with an RBI single.

 

THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN ALTOONA

 

The heat from Gerrit Cole's fastball was matched only by the heat in Altoona on the first day of summer. The game-temperature was 87 degrees, and issues with high temperatures caused a bank of stadium lights to darken just as Cole was warming up for the 5th inning.

 

"It was actually nice to get some warmup pitches before they went out," Cole said. "I just came in, threw on a jacket and tried to keep rolling."

 

After a 15-minute delay, Cole returned to the hill to freeze Romero for his fifth strikeout. After back-to-back singles (one a possible Holt error), Cole struck out Shawn Rook looking. But he couldn't retire the Big Mac Hitter, Aaron Hicks, who hit an RBI single. Cole's night ended after getting Herrmann to fly out.

 

The 6-foot-4 righty was an inning and 16 pitches shy of his imposed limit for the evening, but the electrical delay was cause enough for Curve manager P.J. Forbes to shut the prized prospect down.

 

"I think it was important for him to get through five, not just for the win's sake, but for psyche's sake," Forbes said. "Pitch count, building that and keeping him where we wanted him to be."

 

WHAT'S NEXT?

 

It was a strong opening act in Altoona for Baseball Prospectus' No. 9 overall prospect, who was called up to Double-A last week. In High-A Bradenton, Cole notched a 5-1 record, 2.55 ERA (fourth-best in the Florida State League) and 69 strikeouts in 67 innings. Despite being just 14 starts into his professional career, some evaluators say Cole could be in a Pirates uniform next season.

 

"I think that hitters let you know at each level where a guy is at," Forbes said. "I'm looking for him to experience some adversity. Because when you have adversity, you see what kind of guy you got... we would rather have him fail here than fail up there."

 

As for the 4,807 fans hungry for a McDonald's hamburger? Curve closer Victor Black ended the game by striking out Hicks. The free-burger "K" generated the biggest cheer of the night from the third-largest Altoona crowd of the season.
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