PITTSBURGH — The Pirates had a plan for Gerrit Cole when they drafted the hard-throwing right-hander with the top pick in the 2011 amateur draft.
They hoped Cole would develop into one of the franchise cornerstones, and two years later he may already be there.
The 23-year-old dominated the San Diego Padres on Thursday, striking out 12 to lead the Pirates to a 10-1 romp and stop a three-game losing streak.
Pittsburgh moved a game in front of Cincinnati for the top wild card spot in the NL after Cole (9-7) pitched his third straight gem.
The Pirates’ magic number for clinching their first playoff spot since 1992 dropped to four.
“He continues to grow right in front of our eyes,” manager Clint Hurdle said.
Cole is 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA and 28 strikeouts in his past three starts, each following a Pittsburgh loss. Overwhelming the Padres with a fastball topping out in the high 90s and a curveball seeming to improve by the pitch, Cole prevented a sweep that would have put a dent in his team’s pursuit of its first division title since 1992.
“We just couldn’t get to the fastball,” San Diego manager Bud Black said. “I think we knew it was coming but he located some pitches, threw down and away well. He pitched in. He pitched up (and) mixed it up a little bit with the slider and the changeup.”
And for once, Cole received some help at the plate.
Held to four runs and 11 hits in the first three games of the series, the Pirates pounced on starter Ian Kennedy (6-10) for six runs while putting together their biggest offensive outburst in nearly a month.
Neil Walker had four hits, including his 11th homer of the season, and drove in three runs while Pedro Alvarez hit his NL-leading 34th homer for Pittsburgh. Jose Tabata added two hits and three RBIs as the Pirates regained some momentum heading into a huge series against the Reds, which begins tonight at PNC Park.
“If you would have told us we were going to win one of four in this last series, I’ll take the last one, that’s for sure,” Walker said. “It’s certainly not the best feeling. This wasn’t our best series playing a team people probably think we should beat, but that’s baseball.”
And meaningful baseball at that, something not seen in September in Pittsburgh since Barry Bonds was hitting balls over the fence at Three Rivers Stadium in 1992. The Pirates ended 20 years of losing earlier this month and have their sights set on a playoff spot.
Pittsburgh inched closer to extending its season beyond Sept. 29 by showcasing the resiliency that’s become the team’s trademark. The Pirates were in position to beat San Diego on Wednesday night when closer Mark Melancon surrendered two runs in the ninth to blow his third save of the season.
Given 12 hours to get over it, they responded emphatically.
Cole’s main weakness may be that he gets too fired up. His ERA in the first inning rose to 6.00 when Tommy Medica’s two-out RBI single gave the Padres an early lead. It was the lone hiccup on a day he bolstered his case to earn a start in October if the Pirates make it that far.
Pittsburgh can get there if it can find any sort of consistency at the plate. After gasping for three days, they rediscovered some pop against a team at the end of a wearying 10-game road trip.
Making a spot start while leadoff hitter Starling Marte spent the day in the hospital helping his wife welcome their first child, Tabata scored on a fielder’s-choice grounder by Andrew McCutchen to tie it in the first. Three innings later, Alvarez crushed a belt-high Kennedy pitch and sent it nearly to the concourse behind the seats in center for just his second home run in 22 games.
The homer sent a jolt through Pittsburgh’s dugout. Tabata hit a two-run double with two outs, and Walker followed with a shot to right that climbed just over the top of the Clemente Wall for a 6-1 lead.
Cole worked out of a two-on, two-out jam in the fifth and completed his career day by striking out Nick Hundley. The burly right-hander pumped his first in celebration as he walked off the mound. The Pirates hadn’t won a game by more than two runs since knocking off Milwaukee 5-2 on Sept. 2.
NOTES: Hurdle said he hasn’t set a rotation for the final week of the season. If the Pirates don’t make any changes, ace Francisco Liriano would be available to pitch the opening game of the postseason. Liriano (16-7, 2.29 ERA) will start Friday night against Cincinnati’s Mat Latos (14-6, 3.14) ... Pittsburgh C Tony Sanchez had two of his team’s 14 hits and made an acrobatic grab in the eighth when he hauled in a foul pop by Chris Denorfia, flipping into the Padres’ dugout in the process.