ST. LOUIS -- If he wanted, Pirates rookie right-handed pitcher Gerrit Cole could allow a nightmare to drive him this winter. A 1-2 curveball with two outs in the second inning -- a pitch he was trying to drive into the dirt -- slipped right into the hot spot of Cardinals clutch swinger David Freese.
"I thought I threw it so bad that he wasn't going to hit it; it might've hit him," Cole said.
Yet Cole wound up looking over his right shoulder to see the ball land deep in the visiting bullpen for a two-run homer -- the first scoring of Wednesday night's deciding Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
Or Cole could go the happy route for motivation. Same hitter, two out in the fourth, and Freese had fouled off the first two pitches, both fastballs. Sensing the hitter expected a breaking pitch, Cole froze Freese with a 98 mph fastball on the outside corner, then skipped off toward the dugout, pumping his fist.
Yet Cole, who paid for the homer by being charged with the loss in the 6-1 decision that sent the Cards to the NL Championship Series and sent the Bucs home, took the nightmare and the dream the way he's done everything else since being called to the Majors in June.
The bright talent on the mound and composure off it are the reasons that Cole, who won Game 2 and gave up just two runs in five innings of the Game 5 loss, has established himself as the young leader of a rotation for a team that buried a hoary past and has a bright future.
"You don't know what you're going to get every time you go out there; that's just the way it goes," Cole said. "I don't think I'm going to dwell on one pitch. You've got to be able to shake that off in the middle of the game. I'm not going to sit here and beat myself up about it.
Pitchers starting an ultimate postseason game at age 23 or younger
WS 8 *
* -- Series went eight games due to a tie in Game 2
"Obviously, I wanted to get a better result out of it, but it's just the way the game goes. Take it in stride, learn from it and get better."
Cole, 23, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft out of UCLA, set standards high. The Pirates called him up from Triple-A Indianapolis on June 11, and he went 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA in 19 regular-season starts, with 100 strikeouts against 28 walks in 117 1/3 innings. But the key was it kept getting better.
Cole went 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in five September starts. In 11 innings over two starts against the playoff-tested Cardinals, Cole struck out 10 -- five in each start -- and gave up five hits (three Wednesday) against two walks. The only runs off him came on homers, by Carlos Beltran in Game 1 and by Freese on Wednesday.
Bucs manager Clint Hurdle did not regret picking Cole over veteran A.J. Burnett, who struggled in Game 1 and didn't fare well at Busch Stadium this season.
"I thought he pitched a very professional game," Hurdle said. "To get that opportunity to go out there, attack hitters -- the breaking ball caught too much of the plate.
"But the young man took another step forward, another experience that's going to put him in a better place down the road."
Cole felt the curveball Freese knocked out of the park was the right decision. Although he said it slipped, he was careful not to blame the result entirely on his lack of execution.
"That pitch, I got him to chase a couple of times last game," Cole said. "I put it in a good spot and he just barely touched it a couple of times. I wasn't worried if he was necessarily going to touch it. I wasn't going for the strikeout. I was trying to make a quality pitch. It was the only one that slipped out of my hand. That's the way it goes. But he had a good approach, battled me tough.
"That's what he's paid to do. He always seems to come up with the big hit in Game 5, Game 6, Game 7."
Freese's homer was his seventh in postseason play, which puts him third in Cards history in postseason homers (behind Albert Pujols with 18 and Jim Edmonds with 13). It was his first since Game 1 of last year's NLCS at San Francisco. Freese can also mark as special the many confrontations to come with Cole, with the Cardinals and Pirates expected to battle in the NL Central for years to come.
"He's a young stud, and he's really effective," Freese said. "Obviously he throws the ball hard and [has a] tight slider. But we really were fortunate to get on the board early. We beat a tough kid today."
Cole's lone disappointment was he didn't pitch deeper. He threw just 75 pitches, 51 of them strikes, and felt he "hit a groove" while on the mound, but "that's what happens in postseason baseball." But the lack of offensive success against Cards starter Adam Wainwright dictated that Hurdle remove Cole for a pinch-hitter in the sixth.
"If it's a different game, I probably could ride him a little bit longer," Hurdle said. "We've only got 12 outs to play with, and we don't have any runs. We've got to find a way to score some runs. He stepped up again tonight and showed us a little bit more of what he's capable of.
"You think you're giving him too much, and you're really not. He's been able to handle everything that's come his way."
Cole even handled a poorly executed and costly pitch with the perspective of a pitching-staff leader whose time has arrived.
"It wouldn't be any fun if you didn't fail sometimes," Cole said.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.