Everyone always talks about clutch hitting and how it can impact big games.
What about clutch pitching? That ingredient was pivotal in the first four games of the National League Division Series. It likely will decide whether it's the Pirates or St. Louis Cardinals that wins Game 5 on Wednesday and advances to play the Los Angeles Dodgers.
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“I think it ends up boiling down to a handful of pitches later in the game that could swing the momentum one way or another,” Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole said Tuesday. “It's about putting yourself in position to make those pitches and not trying to do too much.”
Cole experienced that in Game 2, when he dominated the Cardinals for six innings in a 7-1 victory. The 23-year-old rookie will get a chance to do it again Wednesday night, when Cole squares off against Cardinals ace right-hander Adam Wainwright in Game 5.
“I'm sure there's going to be even more of an electric atmosphere over there at Busch (Stadium),” Cole said. “They saw me a few days ago, but at the same time, I've seen them, too. It comes down to executing a handful of pitches — being able to hit spots when I need to.
“It's a great opportunity for me, a high-pressure situation. It's what you prepare for all year, to be mentally and physically ready to go. I can't wait.”
The Pirates blew a chance Monday to eliminate the Cardinals, who are the top-seeded team in the National League playoffs. That set up the do-or-die game at 8:07 p.m. Wednesday.
Cole is not unfamiliar with being on a big stage. Before becoming the top overall draft pick in 2011, Cole pitched in international competitions in college. He won his first four starts in the majors. He threw seven shutout innings Sept. 9 against the Texas Rangers to clinch win No. 82.
After Game 2 of the NLDS, TBS analyst and three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez marveled about the way Cole grabbed control.
“He took over in such a form that even the umpires, on some pitches that were really doubtful, they gave them to him because the kid was in such a groove and getting ahead of everybody,” Martinez said.
When Cole made his debut in June, there were no guarantees he'd finish the season in the majors. Some in the front office wondered if he'd been rushed, compromising his development. If Wandy Rodriguez had returned from his arm injury, there might not have been room in the rotation for Cole.
“I understood the situation,” Cole said. “I took it one game at a time, didn't try to think about it too much, and then all of the sudden we were in September. The games started to get more intense and I realized I'd been taking the same approach as when I came up, just take care of business. One of my strengths is being able to stay focused.”
Manager Clint Hurdle chose Cole over A.J. Burnett as the starter for Game 5. Burnett started Game 1 and gave up seven runs in two innings.
Elimination games usually are an all-in situation for a team's pitching staff. However, even though Burnett has had five days' rest, Hurdle said he was “not sure” if Burnett will be available in the bullpen if needed Wednesday.
“I don't know. We'll have to talk to him,” Hurdle said. “He's been doing this for so many years, he takes a nice routine to get in line to (pitch). But, I do feel confident we've got the pitching we're going to need.”
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.