In Cole, Bucs could have their own Verlander
Hand-picked by Smith in Draft, Pirates rookie could follow in Tigers ace's footsteps
ST. LOUIS -- It was the bottom of the sixth inning on Friday, and Busch Stadium had turned into a noisy sea of red and white.
Seemingly all 45,999 fans were on their feet, waving towels over their head as Carlos Beltran stood at the plate. He had a 3-2 count on him, with Matt Carpenter on first base, and the script familiar to those who watch the Cardinals suggested they were about to get back into the game.
After all, the pitcher was rookie Gerrit Cole. Surely he would rattle.
Cole fired a 98-mph fastball that ticked the inside edge of the plate, and Beltran couldn't even swing. He took strike three and the round went to the rookie, just as Game 2 of the National League Division Series would go to the Pirates, 7-1.
This may have been a surprise to you, but it was not to Greg Smith, who was watching from a private suite. He had seen it all before.
"I'm smiling inside," Smith said about his emotions as the kid faced his biggest challenge. "I'm not going to clap or cheer, but inside I'm definitely smiling. I'm proud of him, our team and I'm thinking about his mom and dad watching … This is why we do what we do."
The question is, has Smith done it again?
Now an assistant general manager for the Pirates, Smith was the Detroit Tigers' scouting director in 2004. He pushed general manager Dave Dombrowski to select Old Dominion's Justin Verlander over a number of safer choices with the second pick in the Draft, and it proved to be a franchise-changing decision.
Smith, named as the Bucs' scouting director in 2008, followed the same road to Cole. He believed in the 6-foot-4 right-hander's potential as the ace of UCLA's rotation. General manager Neal Huntington entrusted Smith with the pick, and Smith bypassed his Cole's Bruins teammate Trevor Bauer, the University of Virginia's Danny Hultzen and high school stud Dylan Bundy to take Cole, who had a losing record and a 3.31 ERA.
Gutsy call? For sure. But Smith had seen how quickly Verlander developed into a monster after he used his influence to settle a split within the Tigers' organization that had some factions pushing for Long Beach State's Jered Weaver, Rice's duo of Jeff Niemann and Philip Humber and Texas high-schooler Homer Bailey.
"There are a lot of similarities between Justin and Gerrit," Smith said after the Pirates' six-run victory had evened the NLDS at a game apiece. "Having gone through the process with Justin, then watching how that worked out, made it easier to follow my instincts, my beliefs, with Gerrit."
You don't have to be Branch Rickey or Hughie Alexander to appreciate the combination of talent, skill and poise that positions the 23-year-old Cole to be the second coming of Verlander. Just look at how he has pitched down the stretch in his rookie season, when he has won his last five starts.
"There's been a young, elite group of pitchers bust on the scene, and we're fortunate to have one," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said.
Cole wasn't perfect on Friday afternoon. He allowed a long home run to Yadier Molina and a first-inning double to Beltran. But after the Pirates gave Cole a lead in the second inning, it was hard to imagine him giving it back. He retired 11 in a row in one stretch and went to the showers leading 5-1 after six innings.
Cole had given up two hits and allowed only three of 21 hitters to reach base -- impressive at any time but freakishly dominant considering it was in a postseason game against a tough-as-algebra Cards lineup at noisy Busch Stadium, with the afternoon shadows hours away.
Cole said he didn't notice much of anything when he faced Beltran in the sixth inning.
"You can kind of feel the energy," he said. "We fell behind [Jon] Jay 2-0 after Yadier [Molina homered in the fifth inning] and the crowd was getting up for that. That sixth inning, I had to make some pitches, but I mean, you know you end up getting so focused that it really doesn't faze you."
This was the best kind of on-the-job training.
"You don't get playoff experience other than getting to the playoffs and meeting those challenges and having those opportunities," Hurdle said. "You get to; not that you got to. And that's one of the things that we continue to share with our guys throughout the season. It's not a 'got to' situation; it's a 'get to.' It's a mindset. I think he's embraced that as well as anybody we have with limited Major League experience."
Justin Morneau, the Bucs' imported first baseman, has seen more than his share of Verlander. He was reaching his prime with the Twins when the Tigers brought Verlander to Detroit in 2005, barely a year after drafting him. Morneau doesn't flinch when he's asked to compare the two.
"Well, I've never hit against [Cole]," Morneau said. "But he does have similarities. The confidence he has out there, the way he handles himself -- it reminds me of Verlander. The biggest thing is that early in the game, he's throwing 93, 94 [mph], and all of a sudden, you look up and he's hitting 100. He's sitting at 98, 99. That's kind of the way Verlander was and is now. He can sense the times when he needs that [extra velocity], and Gerrit is like that, too. We're definitely lucky to have him."
Morneau was asked if it's fun to watch Cole pitch.
"And hit," he said, referring to a second-inning single by Cole off Cardinals starter Lance Lynn that gave the Pirates a 1-0 lead. "He's a guy you want up there with men in scoring position. He's a gamer, a baseball player, a guy who doesn't assume that because he's a pitcher he's not supposed to drive in runs."
Smith hadn't seen Cole hit much when he drafted him, but said he knew Cole had a sixth gear on the mound. That's part of what pushed him past Bauer and Hultzen when Smith was bouncing between coasts to try to make the most of an early first-round pick that was the result of Pittsburgh's 105-loss season in 2011.
"What drew us to Gerrit was his build, his athletic frame, his big arm,'' Smith said. "He had an extra gear. That's something that you don't see with all the top guys. Verlander was a like that in college, too. There's some refinement needed, some rough edges, but an upside that might not be there with the guys who outperformed them in their Draft class."
Verlander pitched in the World Series in his rookie season, after beating Oakland in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. There's a long, long way to go before the Pirates get to the next round -- including a possible Game 5 start for Cole against the Cards -- but Smith pinches himself when he thinks about the chance of lightning striking twice.
"If Gerrit can follow in Justin's footsteps, I think everybody here will be happy," Smith said. "Everybody who follows the Pittsburgh Pirates would be happy. I'm certainly mindful of how special this is. If he can do what Justin did and get us to the World Series this year … OK, sure, go do it."
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.