LOS ANGELES—Gerrit Cole's hat, with its reminders about breathing and taking a pitch-by-pitch approach scrawled under the brim, found its way into the trash barrel outside UCLA's locker room Friday night.
"I've got to try something, huh?" Cole explained. "I don't know."
In a two-minute, 40-second session with reporters after UCLA's 7-5 loss to Oregon State on Friday, Cole used that phrase—"I don't know"—three times. Three other times, he used the phrase, "I don't have a lot of answers."
Indeed, Cole's recent struggles are baffling.
There is nothing wrong with his stuff. Cole sat comfortably in the 95-97 mph range during his entire outing Friday, topping out at 98 a number of times. His 88-89 slider was vicous at times, and he got an early strikeout with an excellent 87 mph changeup, though he used the pitch sparingly Friday, as the Bruins focusing on establishing the fastball.
He has the best pure stuff in college baseball, and he has not been plagued by the lapse in control that affected him over a four- or five-game stretch a year ago. Cole has just 15 walks—three of them intentional—in 76 innings this spring.
Yet Cole, still one of the leading candidates to be drafted first overall in June, has surrendered 18 earned runs in his last 18 2/3 innings over his last three starts—all losses. He failed to hold a 5-1 lead Friday, giving up six runs in the fifth inning. He threw 110 pitches in just 4 1/3 innings, allowing seven runs on 10 hits and three walks to go along with five strikeouts.
"He's in a rut right now," UCLA coach John Savage said. "He's scuffling."
The first question is: If there's nothing wrong with his stuff, why is he struggling? The next question is: Should the Bruins, or teams considering drafting Cole with one of the top picks, be concerned?
"I'm not overly concerned," Savage said. "You look at the stuff, and the stuff is there. It's like a good hitter being in a slump—he's not putting guys away. Today was like a microcosm of the last couple weeks: He gets ahead, he gets two strikes, and then he makes a mistake. And in this conference, they hit mistakes with two strikes.
"We have a ton of faith in Gerrit and a ton of faith in his ability. It's just not smooth sailing all the time; it's not that type of game. We've got to hang in there and look at things, look at the change, look at the breaking ball, look at the fastball command. There's a reason he's struggling, and it's not his stuff. It's counts and it's leverage and it's finishing people off. There's a lot of factors, and he's paying for every mistake right now."
The Beavers did an excellent job protecting the plate with two strikes, and Savage was quick to credit their ability to frustrate pitchers. Even when Cole threw sliders down and off the plate, Oregon State's hitters often got a piece of them, slapping them for hits the other way repeatedly.
"The slider was good at times, but I guess at times when it needed to be better, it wasn't that good," Cole said.
Though the Beavers turned on some balls for hard line drives in the middle innings, they had more success with a middle-to-away approach, suggesting Cole did not own the inner half of the plate.
"He has not established the inner half of the plate like he had been, and that's a problem," Savage said. "It's good approaches, it's mistakes, balls out over the plate, and you've got contact. And it seems a lot of those balls are falling right now."
Savage points out that Cole's fastball command has generally been very good this year—he's thrown it for a strike 68 to 70 percent of the time, Savage said.
"The overall goal this year was to pound the zone," Cole said. "I had nine walks, three intentional walks to this point—I've been getting ahead of guys. It's just the ball's getting hit around the park. I don't know."
This seems like a perfect place to apply that old chestnut we hear so often from coaches: "That's baseball." Like Savage said—everybody goes through ruts in baseball. You can't blame a club with the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick for wondering why somebody with Cole's stuff is just 19-17 in his career, or why he has a pedestrian (at least, compared with other top talents) 3.45 ERA this spring, against hitters with weaker bats.
But the fact is, Cole's combination of stuff, size, delivery and makeup is unrivaled in this draft—or most any draft. It's simply hard not to believe that he'll put it all together.
"I think he's pressing a little bit," Savage said. "You get Friday night, and you get the talk of being the first or second or third pick. He just needs to be himself. When he's himself, and he's competitive, we have the right guy going on Fridays. Hey, he's got to bounce back. That's the nature of the game."
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