Gerrit Cole's future in question after rocky return

PHILADELPHIA -- Pittsburgh Pirates starter Gerrit Cole entered Monday night's outing against the Philadelphia Phillies looking to salvage something positive from a disappointing 2016 season.

Two innings, 55 pitches and lots of introspection later, Cole sounded like a guy who might be ready to regroup and start fresh in spring training.

Cole returned to the mound after missing three weeks with right elbow inflammation, and the results weren't remotely close to what he had in mind. He had trouble throwing strikes from the outset and turned in an ineffective cameo in a 6-2 loss to the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

So where does Cole go from here? During a strained and somewhat awkward session with reporters, Cole declined to speculate on whether he'll make the three scheduled starts left for him this season.

"I'd like to just take it day-by-day at this point," Cole said. "I'll probably have a better answer for you down the line."

And how does his arm feel? Cole's demeanor and cryptic responses suggested he has some things on his mind that he's not ready to share for public consumption.

"I'm as good as I'm going to get," he said.

In the big picture, Cole's health and future are of vital importance to the Pittsburgh organization. Last year, Cole graduated to the ranks of baseball's elite starters when he finished among the National League's top 10 in wins (19), innings (208), ERA (2.60), WHIP (1.09) and strikeouts (202). He fanned Mike Trout in the All-Star Game and finished fourth behind Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in Cy Young Award balloting.

But spring training began with some bad vibes when Cole expressed disappointment over his $541,000 salary for 2016. Then came the injuries. He suffered a rib inflammation in spring training, spent time on the disabled list with a strained triceps in June and has been bothered by the elbow issue for the past month. The only positive news came during a recent trip to Los Angeles, when Dr. Neal ElAttrache ruled out any structural damage and gave him clearance to resume pitching this month.

Cole's fastball registered in the 93-96-mph range Monday, but velocity couldn't compensate for a lack of command. Of the 11 straight heaters that he threw to Cesar Hernandez and rookie Roman Quinn to begin the game, eight missed the strike zone. Cole recovered from the back-to-back walks to freeze Maikel Franco on a 96-mph fastball and get Ryan Howard swinging on a slider, and it appeared he had found his equilibrium.

But everything unraveled in the second. Freddy Galvis drove a fastball into the seats to give Philadelphia a 1-0 lead, and Cole proceeded to give up a single to Odubel Herrera, a double to Cody Asche, consecutive walks to Jeremy Hellickson and Hernandez and a run-scoring double to Quinn. Once the inning mercifully ended with the Pirates down 5-1, he called it a night.

"There were some sequences that caught your eye," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "But at the end of the day, I've got to wait. I'm going to watch some tape and talk to him. I know he's not pleased with the results. With the preparation he put into it, that's understandable."

Matt Harvey, Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg are among the other talented young starters whose seasons have ended early or been severely interrupted by physical maladies, so Cole can take solace in the company he keeps. But it's small comfort when he's on the disabled list, or he's subpar physically and opposing hitters keep sending him reminders. He's smack in the middle of a learning curve.

"To be great, you need to be good for a really long time," Hurdle said. "We throw the term 'great' around like it's a nickel, and that's unfortunate, because it's not a nickel. It's a manhole cover. Hopefully all these young pitchers are learning very valuable lessons -- in a good way -- because the skill sets are fabulous."

Somewhere down the road, Cole might reflect on the travails of this season as a formative experience. But it's too soon for perspective. He and the Pirates have some decisions to make on what the rest of September will bring.