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Youngsters, Cole come through in the clutch

Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates
Gerrit Cole pitches against the Brewers.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Max Moroff was hitting just .083 as the league headed into the All-Star Break last week. With Starling Marte due back in the Pirates lineup a couple weeks later, the Pirates' 23-year old utility infielder presumably did not have a sure grip on his spot on the big league roster.

Manager Clint Hurdle said that the team kept him because he is the second-best shortstop option on the team and can play the other three most demanding infield positions. Even though Moroff wouldn’t get the at-bats he needed in the majors, his glove, not his bat, made him valuable.

Since the break, Moroff has only had three hits. But he has certainly squeezed as much value out of those hits as he possibly could.

On Friday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, Moroff clanged a ball off of the foul pole for his first career home run. On Monday night against the Milwaukee Brewers, he gave the Pirates a late two-run lead with a pinch-hit RBI single.

And on Wednesday night, with the winning run on third in the tenth inning, Moroff did it again.

“It’s amazing,” Moroff said. “That’s the stuff that you see on TV when you’re little.”

Down by a run in the ninth inning, Moroff pinch ran for David Freese after the third baseman worked a one-out walk. Moroff would come around to score the tying run, first hustling from first to third on Gregory Polanco’s single to right field and then coming home on Francisco Cervelli’s clutch single.

Then, with two outs in the tenth inning, Moroff made the most his first and only plate appearance of the day when he fought off a 2-1 sinker from former Pirates reliever Jared Hughes and sent a soft line drive that nestled neatly between the Brewers second baseman and center fielder.

Josh Harrison, who doubled earlier in the inning, came around to score and Moroff was doused with four coolers of Powerade and a few buckets of bubblegum.

Freese, who had two hits and reached base three times on Wednesday, played the backup role last season and knows what it is like to have sporadic at-bats. The veteran third baseman commended Moroff’s efforts, even if they haven’t shown up on his stat line.

“Over the years, we’ve all seen guys who have come up to just be put into tough spots, potentially to not succeed,” Freese said. “[Moroff] is doing a great job up here.”

Now six games into a crucial seven-game home stand against division rivals, the Pirates are 5-1. All five of those were come-from-behind wins, three of which ended in walk-off fashion. Each one of those walk-off hits came from players in their first full major league seasons.

“That’s baseball, man,” Harrison said. “You get presented with opportunities at different times. He’s done a good job of just staying the course and taking advantage of every opportunity out there.”

Josh Bell hit a walk-off homer on Friday. Adam Frazier drove the winning run home on Sunday. Moroff came through on Wednesday.

Clint Hurdle has seen a lot of baseball in his day, but the Pirates skipper could not recall a time when three first-year players (he called them rookies, which doesn’t officially apply to Frazier) came through with walk-off hits in one week.

“I’ve never seen that and I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff,” Hurdle said. “Teams get on rolls and different people continue to show up. This is no different.”

The Pirates have now won 10 of their last 12 games, which include seven wins against the three teams that are currently ahead of them in the National League Central. If the Bucs complete the four-game sweep against the Brewers tomorrow afternoon, Pittsburgh will once again reach .500 and will be just three games behind Milwaukee in the standings.

Freese said that things feel different inside of the clubhouse. Morale is high. Camaraderie is strong. The Bucs are winning and winning is good.

“Anybody walking off for us is awesome, but when you get three young guys in one week, you can’t beat that,” Freese said.

Is Cole an “ace”? Who cares?

Mark Madden, local sports radio host and gleeful Pirates detractor, challenged Gerrit Cole’s “ace” status on Twitter this afternoon.

Personally, I think that the term “ace” is used too liberally and only applies to a handful of pitchers in the major leagues. Gerrit Cole might not be one of them, but on certain nights he sure as heck can look like one. And on Wednesday night, the 26-year old righty pitched like a bona fide stud.

Cole punched fastballs down the Brewers collective throat for the entire night, notching ten strikeouts while issuing one run on six hits and zero walks in seven strong innings.

That one run came in the first inning, after a string of soft hits and a botched pickoff attempt by Cervelli helped Milwaukee grab an early lead. But the Pirates tied the game in the bottom of the first and Cole never looked back.

After the first, not a single Brewer reached second base against the Pirates starter. Of Cole’s ten strikeouts, five of them caught hitters looking. The righty was regularly painting the corners with 97-mph fastballs and looked utterly dominant.

When asked what he thought of Cole’s stuff on Wednesday, Hurdle responded, “Electric.”

“This team is dangerous from top to bottom,” Hurdle said. “If you can get them swinging, you can work it to your advantage. He threw so many strikes that it made them ready to hit and then he hit his spots on top of that.”

The Brewers do strike out more than any other team in baseball, but their offense has largely carried them to the top of the division. But Cole’s performance is just the latest in a string of strong outings by Pirates pitchers that have helped close the gap between Pittsburgh and Milwaukee in the standings.

In July, the Pirates pitching staff has accrued a 2.71 ERA. That is the second best in the Major Leagues through that time period and, if it were to stand up for the remainder of the month, would be the Pirates’ lowest ERA in any month since July 2004.