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NEW YORK — The short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium has gotten the best of several pitchers over the years.
Yet Houston Astros righty Gerrit Cole — arguably the greatest pitcher on the planet these days — was able to withstand the dreaded 314 sign and the mighty Bronx Bombers on Tuesday night.
He didn’t have his best stuff by any means. But that’s what makes him the best in the business. He can keep putting up zeroes on the scoreboard without it.
“He wasn’t as electric or as sharp as usual,” a scout in attendance told Yahoo Sports. “But he was still able to win. And that’s what makes him great.”
Cole morphed from strikeout artist into escape artist in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, stranding nine Yankees over seven shutout innings, and the Astros beat New York 4-1 to take a 2-1 series lead.
“That’s one of his best qualities is when he doesn’t have a pitch or he doesn’t have command and he figures out how to get the job done,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “And we can all learn from that.”
The 29-year-old righty improved to 19-0 with a 1.59 ERA in his last 25 starts, posting 258 strikeouts in 169 1/3 innings over that span. In the playoffs, he’s 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA in three starts, posting 32 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings over that span.
“I think he’s the best pitcher in baseball right now,” Hinch said. “His competition is right next to him in the clubhouse [Justin Verlander]. They’re certainly a good pair. I watch what [Stephen] Strasburg is doing, I see what [Max] Scherzer is doing, [Jacob] deGrom in this city. There’s a lot of big names. But I’m obviously biased to my guys.
“Gerrit is locked in. And to see him do it on the big stage in a playoff game with the magnitude of this game, it was pretty awesome.”
As Cole walked to his postgame press conference in the bowels of the stadium, Verlander’s wife, Kate Upton, waved to Cole and told him, “good game.”
It sure was. A big-game pitcher stepping up on the biggest stage. His latest showcase heading into a winter of riches.
Back up the money truck for Gerrit Cole
Cole is on the verge of being paid handsomely — a free-agent-to-be at season’s end.
There will be no shortage of suitors for his services, basically any big-market team with big bucks to spend. And Cole may end up breaking David Price’s record contract for a starter of seven years, $217 million
The California Kid could head back home to the Los Angeles Dodgers (after their latest playoff disappointment) or Angels. Or maybe he could come east to join the Philadelphia Phillies or Washington Nationals (if they lose Stephen Strasburg). Or maybe he could finally join his childhood favorite team, the Yankees.
New York selected Cole, who grew up a Yankees fan, in the first round of the 2008 MLB draft, but couldn’t even get him to the negotiating table. Cole wanted to play college baseball for UCLA — and a reported $4 million signing bonus didn’t make him change his mind.
A decade later, the Yankees again tried to acquire him from the Pittsburgh Pirates. But the Bombers were unwilling to include emerging youngsters Gleyber Torres or Miguel Andujar in a trade package, instead insisting on Clint Frazier and Nick Solak as centerpieces of a potential deal.
It was understandable at the time, as Cole was coming off a down season in which he went 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA and 31 homers allowed. Yet the Astros were the beneficiaries, ultimately landing Cole in exchange for Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz and Jason Martin and then turning his career around.
In an era of juiced — or now maybe unjuiced — baseballs and openers, Cole is a rare commodity, a starter with the ability to go deep in games and face opposing lineups three or four times in a single night.
And on Tuesday night, 48,998 fans went home unhappy because of him.
Pulling off a Houdini Act
Cole’s fastball maxed out at 100.3 mph and he got 13 swinging strikes on 112 pitches. Five of his seven strikeouts came via his slider.
But he also gave up four hits and a staggering five walks, several times overcoming traffic on the basepaths. In the first, he stranded the bases loaded. In the second, third and fifth, he stranded a pair.
Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius came closest to breaking through against Cole. With two on, two out and the Astros up 2-0 in the fifth, Gregorius lifted a long fly ball toward the short porch in right.
At first, Hinch thought it was gone.
“I think every fly ball in 2019 is a homer,” Hinch said. “Regular season, postseason, I don’t care. It’s kind of been conditioned that way.”
But then Hinch looked at Gregorius — and his initial fears were alleviated.
“I immediately watched the hitter. The hitter tells you most,” Hinch said. “And he didn’t respond right away with sort of the pure excitement. He kind of watched it for a minute and then I looked up and saw [Josh] Reddick getting back, settling underneath it. I watched Didi again, then I felt a little bit better.”
Cole wasn’t as concerned — at least upon contact, anyway.
“Then I turned around and realized where we were playing and so I got a little worried,” he said. “Reddick kind of drifted back. He usually — when he’s got a bead on it — it keeps my blood pressure down a little bit. But the emotions kind of followed the fly ball, right? So it was kind of like low to freaking out to not so worried anymore.”
Gregorius struck Cole’s 98.6-mph fastball with an exit velocity of 101.4 mph. It went 343 feet. But the expected batting average on the hit was .140, and the ball settled nicely into Reddick’s glove right in front of the wall.
Just like that, a potential crisis averted. The Yankees went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position against Cole.
Astros catcher Martin Maldonado also had a pair of long fly balls die for long outs.
Asked if the regular-season ball is different from the postseason ball, Cole responded: “I mean, I haven’t really put much thought into it. I just try to respond to if it goes out or if it doesn’t go out the best I can. I don’t know if it was the ball or if it was the wind. It was a little chilly tonight. I’m not quite sure exactly how this park plays. I’ve only pitched here one other time.
“But it’s baseball. Did [Derek] Jeter’s ball [in the 1996 ALCS] really go out or did the guy reach over and pull it out? Come on,” Cole said with a laugh.
Tipping or not tipping
The Yankees don’t love paying big money for pitchers.
Masahiro Tanaka (seven years, $155 million) and CC Sabathia (seven years, $161 million) are their most recent massive expenditures in that department. And both have delivered in the postseason to help justify their deals.
Tanaka improved his career postseason ERA to 1.32 in Game 1, helping the Yankees take Game 1 in Houston.
But the two starters that have followed him — James Paxton and Luis Severino — combined for just 6 2/3 innings in Game 2 and 3.
And there has been rampant speculation that both Paxton (2 1/3 IP, 1 ER) and Severino (4 1/3 IP, 2 ER) were tipping.
Severino required 62 pitches to get through the first two innings in Game 3. He ended up throwing 40 off-speed pitches on the evening, but got only two swinging strikes with them — both on George Springer strikeouts.
Meanwhile, Jose Altuve (first inning) and Josh Reddick (second) blasted a pair of hanging sliders from Severino for solo homers, giving Cole some early run support.
Former player-turned-analyst Alex Rodriguez tweeted as much during Tuesday’s game.
8 Swings and Misses
7 misses on fastballs
All because they know what's coming so they're starting early and can't stop. #postseason
— Alex Rodriguez (@AROD) October 15, 2019
Asked about A-Rod’s tweet, Bregman — who struck out in the first despite fouling off six pitches in an 11-pitch at-bat — said: “I wish I knew. He struck me out. But I mean, every time we get hits now I think everyone thinks somebody’s tipping. We’re just trying to compete and put together good at-bats, and I think the at-bats were better today.”
Told off the off-speed pitches stat, he responded: “I don’t know. Maybe we saw the ball well. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. He punched me out on a fastball that exploded out of his hand. The rest of them looked very small as well. He was throwing pellets.”
With Tanaka entering the final year of his deal in 2020 ($23 million), Sabathia retiring at season’s end and the Yankees faced with the possibility that Domingo German could be suspended for a large portion of next year due to his domestic violence incident, there will be some decisions to make in the rotation.
And if the Bombers don’t win the World Series, it will mark 10 years since their last title in 2009.
They needed to win Game 3. They didn’t. And now they’re in trouble.
All of it could lead to a run at Gerrit Cole, who is going to make a killing regardless.
In the meantime, Bregman is just trying to figure out Tanaka.
“Can you have him help us?” Bregman joked. “I don’t know what he’s throwing, but I’d like to know.”
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