The Pittsburgh Pirates' pitching staff looked nothing like the best in the majors Thursday, but Gerrit Cole's steady improvement offers hope things will be much different Friday night.
The Pirates try to forget about their most lopsided loss of the season by giving the ball to Cole in the opener of a three-game series against the visiting Colorado Rockies.
Pittsburgh (65-43) came into Thursday with a 3.03 ERA, the best in baseball by more than a quarter-run, after holding St. Louis to seven total in opening a five-game series with four wins.
The wheels came off in the finale, as starter Charlie Morton surrendered five runs in six innings before the bullpen was responsible for an eight-run seventh in a 13-0 loss that cut the Pirates' NL Central lead over the Cardinals to 1 1/2 games.
"We had kept the cat in the bag for four games," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Tonight, we let it out."
Pittsburgh's past two starters allowed a total of 20 hits - the club's worst back-to-back showing this season - and nine earned runs in 10 innings, but there's reason to believe those brief struggles won't continue.
Cole (5-4, 3.56 ERA) won four of his first five starts despite having a 3.94 ERA and striking out just 16 in 29 2-3 innings, but he's been better in his last four starts despite going 1-3. The right-hander has made it through seven innings three times - something he didn't do once in his first five outings - and posted a 3.16 ERA.
He's struck out 21 in 26 innings, including a season-high eight while going seven in Sunday's 3-2 loss at Miami. That impressed his counterpart, young Marlins All-Star Jose Fernandez.
"He's a great pitcher," Fernandez said. "His stuff is good. I saw it hitting, and I didn't like it."
This will be Cole's first look at the Rockies (51-59), and it appears he'll catch at least one big break - if not two. Carlos Gonzalez likely won't play in this series after his sprained right middle finger flared up Wednesday, and fellow All-Star outfielder Michael Cuddyer's status is unclear after he missed Thursday's game to tend to a family issue.
Cole made his major league debut June 11, the same day Jhoulys Chacin (9-5, 3.54) began to reverse his early season woes. Armed with a 4.59 ERA coming into that outing against Washington, Chacin has since gone 6-2 with a 2.39 ERA in nine starts.
What bodes well for him Friday is how he's excelled away from Coors Field. The right-hander has a 1.90 ERA on the road, a mark that's on pace to surpass his own 2010 ERA (2.44) for the best outside Denver in franchise history.
What's far less encouraging for manager Walt Weiss is Chacin's brief track record against the Pirates. He's 1-3 with a 6.97 ERA in four starts and has allowed four homers in 20 2-3 innings - the same number he's surrendered in 127 innings in 2013 for the majors' best home run per nine innings rate (0.28).
Garrett Jones hit two of those, while Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez also have taken Chacin deep.
The Rockies have lost four of their last five series in Pittsburgh, but they have to be thrilled to be anywhere but Turner Field after the past four days. The Braves scored at least nine runs each time in a four-game sweep, capping it with Thursday's 11-2 win.
"I'll make sure that we still compete," Weiss said. "I don't question these guys in that respect. ... That's something that is expected all the time."
Colorado has been outscored 123-60 in losing 17 of 23 on the road.