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HOUSTON — Sometimes, on some nights, 17 fade away, become scenery, extras passing through, and that leaves one of them.
The game can be dumb, can take itself too seriously, forget where it came from and what it’s here for. It gives in to fads too quickly, soon as it releases the foundational anchors with not just reluctance, but mournful reluctance, after a century. All of which makes it pretty human most nights, everybody living with the stuff that went right and the bad luck, soon as all the tireless reverse engineering is done.
So, given all the variables of gravity and traction and emotion, given some nice kid standing out there on something like three acres of nothing and having a tiny baseball find the leg of his stool, given some architect once decided to sketch the jutting left-field bleachers that 20 years later would still be catching postseason home runs, given the randomness that comes with preparing for every little possibility, there’s still room for the one of them, the guy who throws a hundred three hours after he’d first sweated through his ball cap.
Gerrit Cole raised his glove to his left late Saturday night, then to his right. The tens of thousands of people at Minute Maid Park responded by waving their orange towels and howling, he being their guy for at least another week, maybe another few weeks, maybe not for longer than that. He’d thrown 118 pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays in the second game of this American League Division Series, more than he had ever thrown in a professional baseball game. He’d struck out 15 of the 27 batters he’d come up against, finishing them with equal amounts of fastballs, curveballs and sliders, and was leaving four more outs to the bullpen. That proved tricky, but in the end only that in a 3-1 Houston Astros win, so that what Justin Verlander had been to Game 1 here, Gerrit Cole had been the same and more to Game 2 here, and the 107-win Astros are a win from qualifying for their third consecutive American League Championship Series.
A day after being “Verlandered,” as Rays manager Kevin Cash had coined it, the Rays had been Gerrited, which is more likely to leave a mark. There were long stretches of Game 2 when it seemed the only figure on those three-or-so acres was Cole, a notion he’d hate but was nonetheless near impossible to see otherwise. Atop a standard rise, from a standard distance, handed the standard bastardized baseball, in a year remarkable for its surrender to the laws of gravity and traction as it related to that baseball, Cole was, again, different. Special. Bordering on historic. They only let the good teams into these things, which is first off reassuring, but also lends, well, gravity to outcomes like 33 swings and misses, 15 strikeouts, four hits, no runs, all over 7⅔ innings.
“He had complete command of the entire game,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “He lasted, you know, very deep into the game. He was strong at the end. He got punch-outs on virtually every pitch. Different areas of the strike zone. He was creative.”
Hinch continued, then circled back when asked about the last part.
“Going through these lineups, this is a very difficult team to get through,” he said. “The other side, this goes back into the way the season goes. He faces so many different lineups, and I've seen teams load him up with righties because of the breaking ball to lefties. I've seen guys stack the lefties. You've seen guys go up and try to ambush him. You've seen guys be patient, try to drive his pitch count up. He adapts and adjusts to that.
“When you get as many strikeouts in different ways, across the board, it was five each, sliders, curveballs and fastballs. So that's super creative. That's just not throwing 100 [mph]. That's locating your pitches. It's mixing your pitches. It's getting punch-outs to the same hitter in different ways. It's sensing the moment of when he needed to change his game plan. That performance where he can do that much in so many different ways is the definition of creativity.”
Across the field, a team that won 96 games, that then knocked out the 97-win Oakland A’s, that was rewarded for that with 14⅔ innings in front of Verlander and Cole, with who knows how many more from Zack Greinke on Monday, and found itself disappearing into the background. Five Rays had struck out in the first two innings. Another in the third. Another in the fourth. And three more in the fifth.
“The best thing to do is give the hitters the freedom to go up there,” Cash said. “You're just not going to put together good at-bats against them. Might as well go up there, look for a pitch. If you get it, hope you're on time. Waiting around to, you know, see pitches and get to two strikes, that's just not going to be successful.”
Another in the sixth. Two in the seventh. The first two in the eighth. Fighting for the final inches of a game — and possibly a series — Travis d’Arnaud saw a 100-mph fastball. That was Cole’s 108th pitch. D’Arnaud saw two others at 99. The man was relentless.
“God,” Cole said when asked for an explanation. “Seriously. Been doing it for a long time. I just try and not mess it up.”
There must be ...
“I've been doing it since I was 17,” he said.
OK, but …
“It's just — I don't know what to say,” he said. “I just, it's a blessing. I mean, I don't know. I just do it. I mean, I did it all night. So it's just my fastball. I just throw it, and it comes out.”
Sometimes, on some nights, this is just how it looks. This sturdy 29-year-old right-hander with the thick jaw and moppy hair makes the rest of the game look like something it’d never considered of itself before. He is too powerful, too precise, too thoughtful, too clever. Then there’s this blur of hair-trigger decisions and they all seem to end the same, and what you see is dejection, defeat, and what you hear is a town dressed in orange that shouts its approval, and the whole thing becomes about what this one guy can do, even if that wouldn’t be fair at all, even if that’s not what the game is about.
He raised his glove to the left. Then to the right. Sometimes, some nights, that’s exactly what the game can be.
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