The Sports Xchange

MLB Team Report - Pittsburgh Pirates - INSIDE PITCH

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Gerrit Cole could be just days from rejoining the Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation.

The second-year right-hander threw an 84-pitch, six-inning simulated game on Monday at Tropicana Field before the Pirates open a three-game series with the Rays, and early analysis was encouraging. The team can better assess Cole's progress on Tuesday judging by his degree of soreness.

But for now, the first real health concern of his big-league career appears to be resolving itself quickly.

The burly 22-year-old, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, became a fixture and a consistent contributor as a rookie, going 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA in 19 starts. He was 6-3 with a 3.64 ERA in 12 starts when, what the team described as "shoulder fatigue", forced his shutdown after June 3.

Cole's comeback process has apparently been trouble-free enough to encourage the team that he could return to the rotation as early as this weekend, without requiring a minor league start.

"One step at a time," manager Clint Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "If we are following Step A then Step B would put him on chart for the 28th."

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MLB Team Report - Pittsburgh Pirates - NOTES, QUOTES

RECORD: 38-38

STREAK: Won three

NEXT: Pirates (LHP Jeff Locke, 0-1, 3.76) vs. Rays (RHP Chris Archer, 4-4, 3.14 ERA)

PLAYER NOTES:

--2B Neil Walker, who has been on the Pirates disabled list since June 9 after undergoing an appendectomy, began a rehabilitation assignment on Sunday with Class A Bradenton and went 1-for-4 with a walk. He is eligible for reinstatement on Tuesday, while the Pirates are in nearby St. Petersburg playing Tampa Bay.

--LHP Jeff Locke (0-1, 3.76) is expected to make his fifth start of the season on Tuesday against the Rays at Tropicana Field on Tuesday. The 26-year-old is 0-1 with a 3.76 ERA in his previous four, departing with the lead three times only to have the Pirates fail to convert a save.

--LF Starling Marte returned to the starting lineup after missing two games while attending what was described as a "personal matter" at home in the Dominican Republic. He went 1-for-3 with two runs scored on Monday in an 8-1 win over the Rays at Tropicana Field. He became the third Pirate to be hit by a pitch twice in one game.

--RHP Gerrit Cole took another step back toward the Pirates' starting rotation by throwing a successful six-inning, 84-pitch simulated game on Monday at Tropicana Field. Shoulder fatigue shelved him on June 3, but he could return as early as this weekend, without a minor league rehab start, likely pushing Vance Worley or Jeff Locke out of the rotation.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "A lot of the time people have been taking their chances with Pedro, and he's an important part of our offense. We need him to fire. We need him to drive in runs, and that was very good to see from him tonight. Three-run homers always play well." -- Manager Clint Hurdle, after 3B Pedro Alvarez belted a mammoth three-run homer to give Pittsburgh a 6-1 lead in the third inning Monday.