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June 15, 2013

COLUMN: Can Cole live up to the hype?

FAIRMONT — Have you ever wondered what it was like to debut in the major leagues? To go out and fire strike after strike?

After watching Gerrit Cole’s performance with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday evening, Bob Walk said something that brought back memories from the past.

Walk said, “Gerrit will remember this game for the rest of his life. From the beginning where he struck out Gregor Blanco, to the end when he gave his final interview. This game will be engraved in the soul of his career.”

Cole began his highly touted career with a three-pitch strikeout — two 96-mph fastballs and one 99-mph fastball. He then fanned another, giving him two total strikeouts for the game.

Although Cole went 6.2 innings and allowing just two earned runs, can he continue this for the rest of the season?

We all remember when the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg came and dealt a doozie against the Pirates on June 8, 2010. There were more than 35,000 people on hand for the event, and they watched him mow down Pirate hitters.

In fact, his performance was so dominating that he fanned 14 of the Pirate hitters in his debut. He struck out every batter in the Pirates’ lineup at least once and struck out the last seven batters he faced.

Following Strasburg’s debut, in both his second and third major league starts, he struck out another eight and 10 batters respectively. This set a major league record for the most strikeouts in a pitcher’s first three starts with 32. The previous record holder had been J. R. Richard of the Houston Astros, who struck out 29 in his first three starts in 1971.

Another debut that sticks in the minds of many is Kerry Wood.

Yes, the Kerry Wood from the Chicago Cubs, where they compared him to Roger Clemens. It wasn’t Wood’s debut that put himself on the map. It was his fifth start on May 6, 1998.

This is where he threw a one-hit, no walk, 20-strikeout shutout against the Houston Astros, tying Clemens’ record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game and breaking Bill Gullickson’s single-game rookie record of 18 strikeouts in 1980.

Both of these players have had successful careers — even though Wood had to move to the bullpen because of elbow issues — and Strasburg hasn’t been at full strength since 2011.

After hearing what Russell Martin said about Cole, it leads to much hope for the Pirate fans around the world.

“Cole was electric,” catcher Russell Martin said following Tuesday’s game. “He brought it from the first inning and he had his good fastball going, and I thought he kept his composure. It was his first start and all in the big leagues. I know he was nervous out there, but you couldn’t tell.”

Just like the above Strasburg and Wood, Cole lived up to the hype and pitched well.

But in all actuality, Cole’s performance wasn’t breath-taking. For me, It wasn’t a pitching performance that I’ll look back on and say, ‘Wow, I remember watching Cole’s first game on the mound.”

One aspect that does impress me is the fact that he is consistent.

Most young pitchers who throw 96-99 mph can’t spot their fastball. When they do spot their fastball, then they can’t locate their off-speed pitch.

A player who fits this mold is current New York Mets center fielder, Rick Ankiel.

Ankiel was first introduced to the bigs as one of the “next big things” as a pitcher. He debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals and featured everything that a good pitcher should showcase, but he never panned out because of his lack of control.

Because of his inability to find the strike zone, Ankiel had to go back into the minor leagues and transition his play into a center fielder.

Unlike Ankiel, Cole does know where his pitches are going to be thrown.

“Cole established his fastball and he threw off of his fastball,” Martin said. “He threw his breaking ball good and he had a good changeup as well. It looked like he had been there before. So, he wasn’t flustered and he was resilient on the mound.”

This resiliency is something the Pirates need, especially with A.J. Burnett being placed on the 15-day disabled due to a torn calf muscle.

Not only is Burnett out, but Wandy Rodriguez is out due to a forearm injury. That leaves both the Pirates’ No. 1 and 2 starters out, leaving Cole as the Pirates’ reluctant No. 2 behind Jeff Locke who just earned a shutout victory over the Dodgers last night.

Although these guys are out, according to Martin, who has caught Clayton Kershaw and C.C. Sabathia, he ranks Cole above them in terms of pitching location and the quality of his pitches.

“I feel Gerrit had the best fastball that I’ve ever caught,” Martin said. “It really explodes out there. He has good movement — he has a two-seamer and a four[seamer. He’s got electric stuff. He’s going to be good for a long time.”

Well, hopefully Cole can feature that “quality stuff” on Sunday when he deals against the Los Angeles Dodgers at home beginning at 1:35 p.m.

There were 30,614 people on tap for Cole’s first game and MLB network kept flashing replays of the game.

Let’s see if everyone comes out to watch round two because it may be a game like Wood’s or Strasburg’s — it could be electric.

Email Jarrod Harris at jhar­ris@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @JarrodHarrisTWV.

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