Cole throws four innings in back-field game

Pirates ace working hard on establishing changeup

Cole throws four innings in back-field game

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Gerrit Cole continued to move toward his first regular-season start Wednesday morning, throwing a back-field simulated game at McKechnie Field.

Cole threw four innings and around 65 pitches, increasing his workload after a three-inning outing -- another back-field game -- against the Yankees' Triple-A hitters at Pirate City on Friday.

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Cole began the spring slightly behind schedule as he reported to camp recovering from right rib inflammation. He's passing each milestone -- in this case, throwing four innings -- shortly after his fellow starters but has reached the point where it otherwise feels like a normal Spring Training.

"The progression's been very similar to previous years," Cole said. "You continue to try to hammer out fastball command the best you can."

Cole focused on pounding the zone with his fastball on Wednesday but left a few up in the strike zone, one of which Jung Ho Kang slammed off the top of the high left-field fence.

"Probably looking for a little more downhill plane on some of those fastballs," Cole said. "That's going to be something to work on moving forward."

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Cole and pitching coach Ray Searage were particularly pleased with the right-hander's offspeed stuff, however. He was happy with his slider and curveball and induced a few whiffs with his changeup.

"Something that we're looking for," Cole said of his changeup. "It's been a point of emphasis to continue to throw it in catch play, continue to throw it in opportunities in the game so far. Right now we're just looking for a consistent arm action. ... That's a step in the right direction."

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Only 3.78 percent of Cole's pitches were changeups last season, according to Pitchf/x data. The right-hander has focused on throwing it more this spring, giving him another weapon against left-handed hitters.

"The secondary stuff jumped out at Ray today, the curveball, the changeup, the finish, the action to them were especially good pitches for him today, and he threw a number of them," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Ray was very happy with the effort and the heightened awareness that he put back in there, because he was into everything.

"This wasn't about just going back and getting your pitch count up. He was engaged."

Cole should have an even easier time with that his next time out. His only Grapefruit League appearance came on March 13 against the Tigers, his first game since last season. His next outing should be back in a bigger stadium, off the back fields and against Major League hitters.

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.