Cole putting UCLA, not Draft, first and foremost

Cole putting UCLA, not Draft, first and foremost

Cole putting UCLA, not Draft, first and foremost
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Drivers with radar detectors motoring down Rio Salado Parkway early Friday evening must've had their dashboard-mounted gizmos going haywire.

Inside the picturesque ballpark on the shore of Tempe Town Lake, corps of baseball scouts had their radar guns trained on the pitching mound as UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole went into his windup against Johnny Ruettiger, Arizona State's leadoff batter.

The pitch thumped into the mitt of catcher Steve Rodriguez, its sound echoing around Winkles Field-Packard Stadium at Brock Ballpark, and one of Cole's final dress rehearsals was underway.

He was having a wardrobe malfunction, until his assertive response to a fifth-inning challenge doubtless set off bells, whistles and sirens in the heads of all those scouts.

Cole appeared to reel through 4 1/3 innings, allowing three runs and six hits, striking out only one of the first 21 batters he faced.

Draft Central

Then it was showtime, time to validate all the hype and expectations. ASU had already scored a tie-breaking run, for a one-run lead, and had the bases loaded with one out when Cole answered the challenge by conjuring what he'd lacked all night: The knockout punch.

Two of them, in fact: He got Zach Wilson and Matt Newman to swing through third strikes that had to threaten triple-digit territory and were easier to hear than see in the park's dim light.

"I knew that was a make-or-break situation," Cole said later, after the Bruins had crushed ASU, 10-3, to break a second-place tie with the Sun Devils and keep alive their championship hopes. "I just had to go pitch to pitch, slow the game down."

He was 10 days from being a major prize in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.

Live coverage of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft begins with a one-hour preview show on Monday at 6 p.m. ET on MLB.com and MLB Network, followed by the first round and supplemental compensation round. MLB.com will provide exclusive coverage of Day 2 and 3, featuring a live pick-by-pick stream, expert commentary and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of every Draft-eligible player. You can also keep up to date at Draft Central and by following @MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging  your tweets with #mlbdraft.

Cole will go high in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. How high? No. 1, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, plenty of people remained convinced through Cole's recent siege of normalcy.

This was his chance to show he deserved the unwavering support, that he could again be insanely dominant.

And so a critical Pac-10 game -- the No. 19 Bruins and No. 9 Sun Devils began the final weekend of conference play tied and one game behind leader Oregon State -- was somewhat eclipsed by the individual stage of Cole.

It took him a while, but he finally commanded that stage through those fifth-inning straits, when the fastball began to crackle and the hard slider began to bend onto a different plane

"I was making pitches early, too, but they were putting good swings on them," Cole said. "They got their hits early, hit a couple of other balls hard.

"But for the most part, I was down in the zone. They were dropping the bats, putting the barrel on it. But I kept pounding the zone, throwing to my spots, making my pitches. And when the situation dictated it, I had to reach back for some more."

There was plenty back there.

Cole putting his foot down became big in the Pac-10 scheme of things: The Bruins lineup reacted in the next half-inning by pouring five runs across the plate to set up the easy victory.

It also stands to be recalled as big in sealing Cole's immediate fate. From that point through the end of his eight-inning stint, Cole, at a point in a game when most pitchers begin to sputter with emptying tanks, fanned eight of the last 16 batters he faced.

"I made some really good pitches," he said. "It's Arizona State. They will get their hits, especially in this ballpark."

His late show was a hit with the scouts -- it wasn't difficult picking them out of the crowd of 3,859: either you wore a Sun Devil-gold shirt or you were a scout -- and the few front office personnel scattered among them. The finishing kick was more impressive than the overall line of nine hits and three runs in eight innings, with four walks and nine strikeouts.

Cole thus emerged from his month on the "dark side," those conditions perhaps due at least partly to the shadows cast by the approaching Draft. In four losses from April 21 through May 20, his runs allowed matched his strikeouts (19 of each), not an enticing set of numbers.

"But this was more typical of me," he said, deflecting talk of the approaching Draft in deference to this big weekend series which has two more games to go. "Everyone is excited [about the coming Draft], but right now it's all about [Saturday]. We've got a chance to do something very special, if we stay focused and gang-tackle them the way we did tonight."

In its checkered baseball history, UCLA has had one national overall No. 1 pick, in 1970, first baseman Chris Chambliss by the Indians. Among numerous first-round picks out of the school have been only seven pitchers -- with right-hander Tim Leary, the overall No. 2 pick by the Mets in 1979, the highest.

Leary, remarkably, also was the only one of the seven to make the Majors, compiling a 78-105 record across a 13-year career with seven different teams. Whatever the cautionary residue of such a checkered history, Cole's arm can overcome it.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.