Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole reacts as Boston Red Sox's Andrew Benintendi rounds third after hitting a three-run homer during the fifth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Monday, April 3, 2017, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP Photo)
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There are few absolutes in professional sports. Conventional wisdom is flipped on its ear regularly. The same goes for predictions about team performance. Typically there are too many variables in play to say things like, “X only happens if Y performs this way.”
The only time statements like that ring true is when the subject is superstars and their performance or health. If LeBron James tears his ACL, the Cleveland Cavaliers will not win the NBA championship. If Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are similarly injured, the Penguins will not win the Stanley Cup, and so on.
If Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen perform like they did Monday in Boston, the Pirates will go nowhere fast and will have their two highest-profile players to blame.
Cole’s effort to return to his 2015 form looked good for 4 2/3 innings, until his time machine got stuck in 2016 and he got shelled for five runs, all the damage coming with two outs. Afterward, he seemed unhappy about defensive shifting — not a shift that resulted in a bunt hit, but with a defensive alignment that he felt turned what could have been an inning-ending ground ball from Pablo Sandoval into a rally-extending single.
Cole can grouse all he wants. The Pirates’ outlook in this game turned — some might say shifted — dramatically for the worse when, after surrendering a sharp RBI single to Dustin Pedroia to give the Red Sox a 2-0 lead, Cole got ahead of rookie Andrew Benintendi 1-2, couldn’t put him away and instead saw Benintendi put a high fastball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer and a 5-0 Boston lead.
Aren’t “ace” pitchers supposed to battle out of tough situations, whether they be of their own creation or of other factors? Aren’t the game’s best hurlers supposed to bear down when the pressure rises? Aren’t they supposed to make their pitches, to handle a rookie who has never played Triple-A ball, a rookie with all of 115 major league plate appearances entering Monday’s game, no matter how ballyhooed?
Cole should look in the mirror if he wants to confront the man most at fault for the way the fifth inning unraveled.
As far as disappointing Opening Day performances go, though, Cole wasn’t alone. Andrew McCutchen’s four at bats ended with one ball being put in play and three strikeouts, all of which looked pretty hapless. McCutchen, not Benintendi, looked like a callow rookie who had jumped a level in the minors to swing with the big boys.
He certainly didn’t cut the profile of a former MVP with a “chip on his shoulder” after a tumultuous off-season, as so many have suggested. If anything, that chip seemed to negatively affect his swing, making him flail at breaking balls, including one that traveled 58 feet, with a level of futility that would make Dave Kingman blush. Oh, by the way, that 58 foot punch-out pitch happened with two on, two out and the Pirates down two. Not a big situation or anything.
He fielded his position in poorly, as well, alligator-arming a foul ball and bobbling Jackie Bradley Jr.’s wall shot from a likely double into an easy triple. If McCutchen fields that ball cleanly and keeps Bradley at second base, maybe the fifth inning never goes haywire for Cole.
Yes, it was only one game, and no, McCutchen won’t go 0 for the season while Cole registers a winless campaign. But if the Pirates are to seriously challenge for a wild card or present any kind of real threat to the Cubs, Cole needs to stay healthy and be dominant and McCutchen needs to roar back with the kind of year that makes people forget that he’s coming off his worst full season.
This much is certain: The 2017 Pirates won’t shift into high gear if, like Monday, their two biggest names keep going in reverse.