Dominant and industrious, Gerrit Cole and the Astros find the edge in ALDS Game 5

HOUSTON — Gerrit Cole, with ski goggles on his head, longish hair hanging in wet ringlets, walked into the Astros's plastic-covered, cigar-scented clubhouse mouthing the words to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” He stopped, or rather was stopped, in front of a television. Through the semi-transparent tarp tossed overtop, you could see a pixelated version of the very same clubhouse as cameras captured his teammates celebrating around him.

He answered questions dutifully but succinctly.

Does he ever step back and take stock of his historic run of dominance, now extending his own record to 11 straight starts with at least 10 strikeouts?

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“Too busy!”

At any point Thursday, when he would be pitching in a win-or-go-home ALDS Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays to keep his team’s very real World Series dreams alive, did he feel nervous?

“No.”

Is this the most fun he’s ever had playing baseball?

“Yes.”

Could he have pitched the ninth?

“If they let me.”

(“No, he was done. He was done,” his manager A.J. Hinch said. “I couldn't get far enough on the field to shake his hand to make sure that everybody knew he wasn't going to go back out.”)

In the second inning of the game, he got burned on a 95-mph fastball that Eric Sogard sent into the seats for the only run the Rays scored on the night; by the eighth inning, he was throwing 99 mph — was that because he got looser or felt more fired up?

“It’s just what I do,” Cole said. And then, seizing on a lull in the scrum that had formed around him, “Are we good?”

And with that, the gaggle of reporters wearing raincoats to protect their business casual from cascades of champagne let Cole go join his teammates. All things considered, the raincoats were probably overkill and the celebration comparatively subdued. Not because the Astros necessarily expected to win this series — at least they wouldn’t say so publicly after losing Games 3 and 4 at Tropicana Field — but because two years removed from a World Series title, they know to pace themselves.

We let him go because what else was there for Cole to say about how the 107-win Astros walked away with a 6-1 victory — holding a lead from the first inning on — when at every turn the explanation seems to be that they simply tried to do winning things and it worked? I’m sure that within each player there is plenty of pathos, but taken as a whole, the Astros are almost infuriatingly successful at optimizing baseball best practices. In an overly reductive retelling of what was in fact a book-worthy process that saw them practically invent the rebuild, the Astros were bad for a while so they could be good for hopefully longer, and now they are reaping those benefits while continuing to look for any edge at all times.

Watching the Nationals take down the 106-win, two-time NL Champion Dodgers Wednesday night, Hinch found himself texting Alex Bregman about how “anything can happen during a given game.” But for the winner-take-all matchup at Minute Maid Park, the Astros had a very specific reason to feel confident.

“When we have Gerrit Cole on the mound, we win,” Hinch said postgame. It’s a streak that could come to an end as the Astros face increasingly talented teams this October, but for months, it really has been that simple. Cole hasn’t lost a decision since May. Including Thursday night, the Astros have won his last 15 starts. Winning: it’s just what he does.

Gerrit Cole reacts after a double play ends the top of the seventh inning during Game 5 of the ALDS between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, October 10, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Getty Images)
Gerrit Cole reacts after a double play ends the top of the seventh inning during Game 5 of the ALDS between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, October 10, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Getty Images)

In the first eight innings of the decisive Game 5, the Rays used nine pitchers. The Astros used just one. This is not so much a metaphor as it is a direct microcosm of each team’s mentality. The Big Three vs. the bullpen game, sure. But beyond that, too. The Astros have worked to build a burgeoning dynasty that relies on consistency — they’ve won over 100 games three seasons running and on Thursday night their starting nine included seven players who were on the team or in the organization for their 2017 championship.

Meanwhile, the Rays found themselves with the exact same stakes despite not having appeared in the playoffs since 2013 and quite literally having never won 100 regular season games. And, for comparison’s sake, only two players in their starting nine that were with the team when the Astros won in 2017.

It is most remarkable that Cole pitched as well as he did, and the bulk of this story will be dedicated to him. But honorable mention goes to the fact that seven of the Rays pitchers during those first eight innings held the mighty ‘Stros scoreless. A parade of largely anonymous relievers (plus one reigning Cy Young award winner) didn’t work to get a win when the Rays needed it most. But unfortunately for traditionalists, it worked better than you might’ve thought if you were only watching Kevin Cash create and then tread a well-worn path between the visiting team dugout and the mound.

“They had guys up every inning,” Hinch said. “We were spending just as much time looking on the TV monitor to see who was warming up and what they possibly were going to do than even watching what was going on in the field. That preparation is exhausting.”

“Once [Cash] made his first move, I knew that it was going to be a bullpen game like we had in Game 4,” Hinch said. “So before that started I wanted to score as many runs as early as possible because they’re so good at matching up.”

His praise was spot-on. For six innings, Tampa bobbed and weaved their bullpen to keep the Astros from extending their initial lead until a pair of solo shots in the eighth gave the crowd an opportunity to roar their excitement at the impending advancement to the ALCS.

But what about that strategy? Scoring a lot of runs very quickly does seem like a good way to win baseball games, if you’re into that sort of thing. What makes the Astros different is that they just went out and executed the plan — with a little help from the opposing pitcher and an industrious sense to seize an opportunity.

After the game, Bregman, who hit a two-run double as part of the four-run first inning, denied that the Astros were able to detect what Rays’ starter Tyler Glasnow was about to throw. But Glasnow, who posted a staggering 1.78 ERA in an injury-abbreviated 60 2/3 innings this season, was less circumspect.

“It’s something that I’ve done in the past,” he said of tipping his pitches. “Sometimes it’s worse, sometimes it’s not, but today it was relatively obvious.” He said he noticed it rewatching Bregman’s at-bat but that he struggles to adjust his motion mid-game.

“Trying to fix that while you’re pitching, it’s just such a rhythm, timing thing,” he said, “it’s hard to change even if you know you’re doing it.”

Even after Glasnow was pulled, the Rays appeared to be running through multiple pitch signs — even when there wasn’t a runner on second. Tampa’s ace, Blake Snell, who threw a scoreless inning in relief, addressed the speculation that the Astros were stealing signs.

“This is a team that’s gonna do it,” he said. “They’re gonna try to find a way to find every advantage, and they’re definitely going to try to steal signs. That’s just what they’re known for.”

Stealing signs, and winning.

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