By Rob Rossi
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Gerrit Cole (7-4, 3.65) will start for the Pirates on Monday afternoon when they face the Cardinals in St. Louis.
Russell Martin has caught a lot of starting pitchers over his many summers. No one quite like Gerrit Cole, though. It's not Cole's power arm. It's not Cole's visible intensity. It's not Cole's studious approach.
It's all of that, and it's what the St. Louis Cardinals are getting from the Pirates on Monday afternoon.
At Busch Stadium, where the Pirates' postseason ended last October, where their playoff push enters September.
“He's not afraid,” Martin said of Cole. “He likes to rise up.”
A rising is what the Pirates need.
Look, going 7-3 to follow a seven-game skid was a good way to salvage August, but the Pirates should be riding a five-game winning streak.
That was Francisco Liriano on the mound Sunday afternoon. That was Josh Harrison taking Johnny Cueto's first pitch deep. That was a 2-0 lead with only 15 outs standing between the Pirates and a 72nd victory.
That was a sweep that should have happened.
It didn't, and a series win — though necessary — wasn't good enough for the Pirates, who began Sunday trying to jump ahead of two teams for a division title and three to bring a wild-card game to PNC Park.
Every lead probably won't be held over the Pirates' final 26 games, but…
Every lead must be held, right? Or extended at least, right?
There aren't enough games left to give ones away like the Pirates did on Sunday.
There also aren't enough games left to justify Andrew Lambo as a No. 2 hitter, but it's not likely that the Pirates' playoff hopes were busted because a minor league power hitter couldn't bunt Harrison to second base with nobody out in the eighth inning.
Well, let's hope not, anyway.
Monday marks the Pirates' biggest game against the Cardinals since Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Tuesday's game will be bigger and Wednesday's will be biggest.
This is it against St. Louis. The Pirates won't see the Cardinals again unless there is a return engagement in the postseason.
A sweep positions the Pirates in sole possession of second place by Wednesday night.
A series win gets them to within a game of that slot.
You don't want to think about any other result, at least if you are thinking about another blackout sellout in Pittsburgh in October.
The Pirates' next 10 games are on the road, where they are 27-37. There are metrics that measure how good the Pirates are at home and how bad they are on the road, but there is about 15 percent of the season left to play, so winning percentages set the narrative.
The Pirates are playing to a .611 clip at home and .422 on the road, where they will be for 17 games this month.
Ah, but a baseball team is only as good as its starting pitcher for the next game.
That brings everything back to Cole and his 95 mph velocity that is now holding late into games, those forceful fist pumps after big strikeouts, that blood that must course coldly through the veins of a California kid who seems like he is Texas tough.
He looks the part of a stud starter, a big-game pitcher, a master of the moment. He looked that part last September and for all but a couple of pitches in two playoff starts at St. Louis last October.
He may look the part again Monday.
Another look has impressed Martin, and it is the one Cole's shown between starts. It's the look of a second-year big leaguer “always studying batters,” “always asking the right questions behind the scenes,” and “always looking for something he can use to his advantage.”
It's the look of a cerebral assassin.
“You don't see that,” Martin said. “It's something I see every day, but it's not something you really see with somebody his age.”
The Pirates have no one quite like Cole.
If they want him to take the bump in a playoff game — and they should — he'll need to show them the playoffs really start on Monday.
At Busch Stadium.
Where everything ended almost a year ago.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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