Cole 8-24

If Gerrit Cole appears to be lost these days, perhaps your eyes aren’t deceiving you.

In his last four starts, Cole is 0-3 with a 7.06 ERA in 21.2 innings. During that span, batters are hitting .348 against him with a .554 slugging percentage, including a total of 13 total bases the Houston Astros collected in only 20 at-bats against him in a 5-4 victory over the Pirates Wednesday at PNC Park.

In the ongoing search for what is going wrong with the 25-year-old right-hander who was supposed to be the pace-setter for the 2016 Pirates’ pitching staff, the answers appear to be simple, but the solutions are more elusive.

“I hate to sound simplistic,” said manager Clint Hurdle when trying to explain Cole’s struggles after Wednesday’s loss. “The overall command is coming and going, the inconsistency with command. (On) the replays they’re showing on the big board, you see balls elevated in the middle of the plate.”

“It’s just like every time I didn’t get to the spot I just got burned,” Cole said. “But when I was able to get it there, I had some good success. I got some broken bats, some ground balls and some weak ground balls, but I’m just getting killed when I miss.”

The theme of inconsistency was evident throughout the game as Cole retired the Astros in order in the first and third innings. But in the second, he gave up a lead-off single to Carlos Correa before Evan Gattis clubbed his 20th homerun of the season over the center field wall. He also stranded Teoscar Hernandez on second base after a two-out double to left.

Correa led off the fourth with another single, and was driven in on a Marwin Gonzalez triple into the right field gap. A lead-off hit plagued Cole again in the fifth when George springer singled, followed by an Alex Bregman double to put runners on second and third with no outs. Sacrifice flies by Jose Altuve and Correa brought those runners home.

“You break a bat on a slider, and then you try to go inside and you miss up-middle and the guy hits it off the wall for a triple,” Cole said. “There’s a run right there. You make a few good pitches and maybe one too many fastballs. You miss over the plate and I’m just getting punished. That’s just the bottom line.”

“Three or four starts ago, you were talking about not giving up homeruns,” said Hurdle. “We’re not talking about that anymore. The ball is elevated in the middle of the plate, so that has changed. “It’s only one walk (and) four punch-outs, but the misfires in the zone, most of them were elevated. Most of them were in the middle.”

Neither manager nor pitcher can point to any kind of change in preparation, or any lack of effort to prepare between starts. Hurdle also said he does not believe Cole’s triceps injury that occurred in mid-June is having any effect, either.

“He’s out there pouring everything he can (into) the work in between when he’s getting on the mound,” Hurdle said. “All I know is when I look at the replays — where the pitches are — they’re up and elevated over the middle of the plate, and not so much with the outs.”

When tracking Cole’s progression from a no. 1 overall draft pick to a finalist in the National League Cy Young voting after only his second full season in the majors, one would be hard-pressed to find a 7-9 record with a 3.55 ERA in the following season as a logical plot point. But right now it is more important and imperative for Cole to find a baseline to progress from.

“I’ve just been working every start just to try to find that consistency with the delivery and be able to go out there and repeat as many times as I can,” Cole said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m having bad luck. I mean, I’m not pitching as well as I’m capable of, but at the same time, one bad pitch just seems to be there. I just don’t get away with it.”

And failing to get away isn’t the best course for the Pirates’ top starter if this team hopes to get ahead in the Wild Card race, or else both Cole and his teammates could ultimately define this season as lost at sea.

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