There were heroes. There were disappointments. There were clutch hits, magical moments and ultimately a first-ever championship for the Washington Nationals.
Yes, Game 7 of the World Series had nearly everything you would expect a do-or-die season finale to have. But there was one thing that was noticeably missing if you’re a Houston Astros fan.
Game 7 didn’t have Gerrit Cole.
[Championship gear: Get your Washington Nationals World Series title merchandise here]
The Astros main man and the soon-to-be most coveted free agent in MLB was spotted loosening up for a potential relief appearance during the sixth inning. He wasn’t needed then as Astros starter Zack Greinke continued pitching what to that point had been the game of his life. But when the tide turned one inning later and manager A.J. Hinch finally needed a reliever, Cole wasn’t his choice.
When Hinch called on four additional relievers in the eighth and ninth innings, Cole was still nowhere to be found.
With each new arm that wasn’t Cole, the game slipped further and further away from Houston. First, it was Howie Kendrick’s two-run go-ahead home run against Will Harris. Then it was Juan Soto’s run-scoring single against Roberto Osuna in the eighth inning. Then it was Adam Eaton’s game-breaking two-run single off Jose Urquidy in the ninth.
Then it was over.
So what gives? Why was Houston’s best pitcher left benched in a winner-take-all Game 7? Why was he there one moment and gone the next? A.J. Hinch had an explanation, but we’re not sure Astros fans will like it.
Gerrit Cole had a specific Game 7 role
According to Hinch, Cole was only going to be an option in Game 7 if and when the Astros had a late lead and chance to close out a win.
AJ Hinch said he wasn’t going to pitch Gerrit Cole unless they had a lead and were going to win. He was planning on having him closing the game out if they got to that point.
— Julia Morales (@JuliaMorales) October 31, 2019
That’s a good plan assuming everything’s going to go your way.
Unfortunately for Hinch, nothing went his way after the sixth inning. Howie Kendrick made sure of that when he took a Will Harris pitch off the right-field foul pole.
That moment is where the debate truly begins. If you’re pulling the plug on Zack Greinke with the go-ahead run coming to the plate in the seventh inning, which is a decision on its own that will be heavily second-guessed, there would seem to be no more ideal time to use Cole.
Of course, there are other factors involved. Chief among them, Cole hasn’t pitched in relief since his college days at UCLA. It’s not a normal routine for him, so he would need appropriate time to warm up. But Houston had the lead Hinch referenced for six innings, and still had that lead before the Kendrick at-bat. They never had the lead again once Kendrick rounded the bases, and they never had an answer for Washington’s suddenly awake offense from that point on.
If there’s one thing Cole had all season, it was answers for slowing down and often times dominating whichever offense he faced.
For better or worse, Hinch and the Astros stuck to their plan. For that, some will commend them for not overworking a pitcher who carried a heavy load all season and will soon cash in because of it. Others though will question why the plan lacked flexibility, particularly going to the ninth inning down only two runs.
“With all that was on the line, he and I had an incredible conversation about what he was willing to do to win the World Series,” Hinch said after Game 7. “And that means a lot to me, it means a lot to this team, and he's meant a lot to this franchise.”
Gerrit Cole’s interesting response
Naturally, Cole was asked about his usage after the game. His initial response was a little less than usual.
Gerrit Cole, an impending free agent, was resistant to talk after Game 7.
“I’m not an employee of the team,” he said to an Astros spokesperson. “I guess as a representative of myself...” Then he spoke.
— Hunter Atkins (@HunterAtkins35) October 31, 2019
Cole would go on to confirm what Hinch had already mentioned. He was the Game 7 closer, not the Game 7 high-leverage reliever available to squash a rally or protect a lead before said ninth inning. He just had nothing to close, because the guys Hinch went to in the highest leverage situations came up short.
It’s not like Will Harris or Jose Urquidy haven’t come through before, either. They just didn’t on Wednesday. Unfortunately, Wednesday was Game 7 of the World Series, and there’s no more important game that any of them will ever play in.
Cole’s pending free agency, which as he noted essentially began the moment Game 7 ended, is an interesting factor as well. If he were locked into a deal, would the Astros’ plans have been more flexible? Would Cole have been more flexible? Those are questions to which only Hinch and Cole may know the answer.
But we can safely say Cole’s absence from Game 7 was a massive blow to the Astros’ hopes of winning a championship.
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