KEEPING PACE IN THE NL CENTRAL ISN'T EASY, BUT THE PIRATES ARE PUSHING THE CARDINALS HARD WITH A NEW-AGE APPROACH IN THE DUGOUT AND AN OLD-SCHOOL ACE AT THE TOP OF THE ROTATION
THERE'S AN easy way to tap into the psyche of the Pirates: Find out what Clint Hurdle is reading. Last winter, leading up to his fifth season as the team's manager, Hurdle became a John Wooden completist. He read every book on the UCLA great, "mining for wisdom on achieving sustained success." Earlier this season, as his motley crew of prospects and reclamation projects and international imports sputtered to a uneven start, Hurdle could be seen on flights with a dog-eared copy of The Boys in the Boat, the tale of a ragtag U.S. crew team that won gold at the '36 Olympics.
Last Friday at Citi Field, as his surging Pirates—the best team in baseball since mid-May—opened up a three-game series with the Mets, the skipper leaned back in his chair as he revealed the title he'd gotten his hands on during his team's trip to St. Louis last week. "The Matheny Manifesto," he said with a toothy, wry smile—Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's new autobiography. "Figure now's the perfect time to crack it open."
As their manager's reading list may suggest, the Pirates are still looking up at St. Louis in the NL Central: After sweeping the Mets, Pittsburgh had the second-best record in the National League—but still trailed the Cardinals by five games. But with a six-game lead in the wild-card standings, a third straight postseason appearance is well within reach, and the franchise's win total since the start of the 2013 season is higher than every team but that of the Cardinals and the Dodgers. And those teams' budgets over the last three years dwarf the minuscule expenditures of the Pirates, whose 2015 Opening Day payroll ranked 25th out of 30.
This is not your typical organization, and that is clear the moment you step inside the home clubhouse at PNC Park. Players glide in on electric-powered scooters. ("It's become a thing here," says star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen. "The walk to the parking lot is really long—and over 81 games it adds up!") In the hours before game time, players walk around in black compression shirts affixed with blinking fitness-monitoring devices over their chest, like cyborg warriors in a Terminator movie. Evidence of the organization's analytics-driven (and top secret) philosophies are omnipresent, and nowhere is the spirit of innovation and creativity more apparent than in the area of run prevention. There is the devotion to defensive shifts—fielders are strategically deployed on the field with NASA-like precision—but also this: The Pirates, a team powered by baseball's second-best pitching staff, have become a Lourdes for pitchers, having miraculously saved the careers of several broken starters in recent seasons: Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez.
The pitcher who best epitomizes the Pirates' ethos is not a reclamation project, however. He is a former No. 1 overall pick with a 100-mph fastball, a gunslinger whom the 38-year-old Burnett simply calls "God." He is the reason why Pittsburgh is the team no one should want to face come October.
I COULDN'T IMAGINE playing here, in New York, because of all the b.s.," Gerrit Cole was saying last Saturday afternoon, sitting in the visitor's dugout at Citi Field. The 24-year-old ace of the Pirates was talking about baseball's hype machine, impossible expectations and the pressures of being a phenom in today's game. Cole once faced those impossible expectations himself, and he has fulfilled the prophecies: In his second full season, the righthander is tied for the major league lead in wins (14) and has the sixth-best ERA (2.48) in the NL, with 149 strikeouts in 1482/3 innings pitched.
"The pressure to perform so early is huge," says Cole, who was called up to the majors at age 22 three summers ago, in the middle of a playoff race in Pittsburgh. "There's not a lot of opportunities for players to come up in this game and perform without pressure. There's no time anymore for a guy to learn how to pitch."
Baseball's hype machine has whirred around Cole since he was in high school. He was picked by the Yankees in the first round in 2008, but he turned New York down, believing he needed more seasoning; he was the first high school pitcher selected in the first round in seven years to go to college instead. What made the decision even more startling was that he had grown up in California as a Yankees fan. When he was 11 he went to the 2001 World Series and sat in the front row for Games 6 and 7 in Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix; New Jersey's Star Ledger published a photo of Cole holding a sign that read YANKEES FAN TODAY, TOMORROW, FOREVER. But Cole and his family stuck with the plan. Though he had hit 101 on the radar gun his senior year, he went to college and over the next three years went 21--20 at UCLA before the Pirates made him the No. 1 pick in 2011.
In the minors, Cole's strikeout totals were surprisingly pedestrian for a pitcher whose fastball had been compared with Stephen Strasburg's. Some took the low whiff rate (he struck out just 21.9% of hitters in 222 innings) as an indicator that Cole might not be as good as advertised. "That stuff can get into your head," he says. "Looking back, I'm just glad I didn't give a s--- about it. I'm trying to put the ball on the ground, and it's working for me, so I'm not going to change."
Cole is 6'4", 230 pounds, a prototypical power pitcher's build, with long brown hair, a solid jaw and a neck as thick as an oak. He glares down from the mound holding his glove in front of his face before he starts his delivery, much like the man whom he listed, in the UCLA media guide, as one of his heroes: Roger Clemens. The power of Cole's fastball comes from his torque; his belt buckle is still nearly facing home plate when his shoulders twist to face third base—a powerfully efficient motion, one that relies on core strength rather than arm strength. It also lessens the kinetic toll on the arm as Cole unleashes five different pitches—four-seamer, sinker, slider, curveball and changeup—at any point in the count. "He's already one of the three best pitchers I've ever caught," says backstop Francisco Cervelli, a longtime Yankee who has handled the likes of CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. "He pitches like he's on fire."
Nurtured by an organization that schools all its pitchers, from rookie ball to the majors, to pitch to contact, he avoids the temptation, with his blowtorch fastball, to strike out every hitter. "God gave him talent, but he also listened," says Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. "Our core values are: First-pitch strikes. Make something happen in three pitches or less. Control the running game. Keep the three-ball counts to a minimum. Pitch in, which opens up your sinker, so that can go in and can go away. Since the day he got here, he's been all in on all of those."
Cole's slider usage and strikeout rate (now nine per nine innings) are up this year, but so is his groundball rate (a career high 50.4%), following the M.O. of a staff that has led the league in groundball percentage the last three years. "Just pound the zone with sinkers—that's their deal," Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry says of a staff that includes Liriano (52.6 groundball percentage), Burnett (53.2) and Charlie Morton (58.3). "It's a pretty good theory."
While the team was in St. Louis last week, a clubbie asked Cole to sign a ball for a fan. "He's like, it's Whitey Herzog who wants one. I'm like, he wants a ball for me? I had to meet him. Amazing gentleman. Cussed up a storm, too."
Cole will not allow the growing attention to get to him, however—he never has. And he knows that other young pitchers have it tougher. The following weekend, while the Pirates were in New York, Cole gestured toward the opposite dugout. "That rotation, for instance, is just hyped beyond belief—I mean, the guys here have no room for error," he said of the Mets' pitchers. "I was talking to some of the guys in the clubhouse today [about Matt Harvey]. And these guys are like, Oh, yeah, Harvey, he's been lucky the last few starts. I look at his numbers, and I'm like, Geez Louise, the guy is coming off freaking Tommy John, he just had his elbow cut into!
"You look at Matz"—Mets rookie Steven Matz, who made a brief splash earlier this season but is now on the DL with a partial tear of his left lat muscle—"he comes in for his major league debut and he pulls his lat in his first game. I have no idea how it was handled, but I have to believe that the guy, after his major league debut, he's worried about pitching the next game and he pushes through again, and two starts into his career he's on the shelf."
The young pitcher's point is this: "Becoming a great pitcher in this league, it's easy to lose sight of it in this day and age, but I know it doesn't happen overnight. I've got nothing figured out."
SATURDAY-NIGHT BLOCK PARTY, reads the banner above the stage outside PNC Park on a recent August afternoon—this summer, on nights the Pirates are in town, this patch of Pittsburgh is host to the biggest bash in the city. This evening fans clutching Primanti Brothers hoagies and plastic cups of beer pack Federal Street. They climb onto the massive bronze statues along the street, for selfies with Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente. On a plaza along the Allegheny River, a marching band plays and people spin and dance as they walk over the great yellow iron bridge that spans the water.
Pittsburgh is a baseball town again. It happened suddenly: Three years ago, when the losing stretched into a third decade, the Pirates struggled to draw crowds to their jewel of a ballpark. Now attendance at PNC is up for a third straight season, to 30,376, and after two straight early October exits, expectations from the faithful are as high as they are for the beloved Steelers. As they should be: This Pirates team, on pace for the franchise's highest win total (97) since 1991, is by far the best of the Hurdle era. It boasts one of the most dynamic outfields in the game, with McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco; a lockdown bullpen that through Sunday had won 16 consecutive decisions, the most since 1909; and a rotation fronted by a young ace who may be capable of Bumgarnerian feats this October.
"This is what it's all about," Hurdle said last week, as his team began a brutal 20-game stretch with no off-days. After that comes the cauldron of September, with six more games against St. Louis. "It's going be fierce, it's going to be fun," Hurdle says, with the bravado of a man who likes his chances, and he pounds the table with a grin and a glint in his eye, as if to say: Bring on the Cardinals. Bring on September.
Bring it all on.
FORMER YANKEE CERVELLI CALLS COLE, "ONE OF THE THREE BEST PITCHERS I'VE EVER CAUGHT."
Photograph by David E. Klutho For Sports Illustrated
DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES (MCCUTCHEN)
THE BIG BUCS McCutchen (above) is making a case for his second MVP, while Hurdle (below) has created the clubhouse aura of a perennial contender.
LEON HALIP/GETTY IMAGES (HURDLE)
[See caption above]
JARED WICKERHAM/GETTY IMAGES (LIRIANO)
OFF THE HEAP Behind Cole, vets like Liriano (left) and J.A. Happ (right) have stabilized the Pirates' rotation.
BRAD PENNER/USA TODAY SPORTS (HAPP)
[See caption above]