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2013 NLDS: How Will Pittsburgh Pirates’ Gerrit Cole Respond To Being On The Precipice Of Greatness?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole has been the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ best pitcher for a while now — the baseball world just doesn’t quite know it yet.

Then again, it’s very possible that the 23-year-old rookie phenom doesn’t quite know it either. After all, while his 3.22/1.17 ERA/WHIP and 7.67 K/9  through 117.1 regular season innings was as good as any team could hope for from a MLB first-timer, it was thoroughly trumped by the performance of Miami MarlinsJose Fernandez.

So, you could excuse the baseball world for not paying too much attention, despite all of the pedigree the Cole had coming in as a summer call-up.

That’s okay, though, because Clint Hurdle was paying close attention all along, and if the Bucs’ skipper has it his way, the team’s first overall pick from 2011 might just end up being a household name around the baseball world after Game 5 of the 2013 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But just what has Cole done to earn the right to carry the Pirates on his shoulders in what could reasonably be called the franchise’s most important game (for now) in the last two decades?

Well, being one of the very best in the game will do that, I suppose. With Pittsburgh being in the thick of a tight playoff and divisional race though the final month of the 2013 season, all Cole did was throw five straight quality starts (extending a streak to eight), allowing no more than two runs in each of those outings. Oh, and for all of you traditionalists out there, he went 4-0 in the month too.

His 1.69/1.06 ERA/WHIP and .209 BAA in September easily lead the Pirates rotation (not counting Brandon Cumpton‘s long start), but not only that, Cole found the inner strikeout machine within him in his final regular-season turns, setting down batters on strike three at a gaudy 10.97 K/9 rate. That, by the way, puts him second in the NL for the month (next to Cliff Lee), as does his team-leading 1.3 fWAR.

And hey, did I mention that he absolutely shut down the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS with six innings of one-run ball, just one game after A.J. Burnett put the team in an early series hole?

So while Hurdle was being respectful to the team leader Burnett, his difficult decision to go with the youngster Cole in the upcoming do-or-die game was, in essence, not much of a choice at all: if he wanted to give the Pirates the best chance to win this, or any other ball game in the postseason, he’d have to give the ball to the rookie.

For Cole, that’s not only an opportunity to make an emphatic statement of his arrival among the league’s elite, but also to complete his rapid ascent from top pick to rotation leader — the role that he was destined for.

Most of all, however, it would get the Pirates to the next round of the 2013 playoffs. And really, considering that it was fellow rookie Michael Wacha who stole the spotlight in what was a chance for the Pirates to move on, wouldn’t it be fitting for Cole to seal it up in a game that could do so much for the team’s future?

Thom is an MLB writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @BlueJaysRant, or add him to your network on Google