Gerrit Cole wasn’t great — until he needed to be. When he absolutely had to make a pitch, he made one like he hadn’t at any other point in his debut Yankee season.
In a bottom of the fifth inning that had touches of a Russian novel and a Tarantino movie — so loaded was it with plot points and twists — the dramatic conclusion was lightning, a triple-digit fastball from Cole. The bases were loaded. Two were out. The Rays were down one.
This was the pivot point of a terrific division series Game 1 between heavyweights. Both sides threw power punches — two homers by Tampa Bay, three by the Yankees. Then Cole unleashed 100.1 mph. His best velocity as a Yankee. It struck out Manuel Margot. That pushed the Yankees toward a victory they had to have — because they pretty much have to win Cole’s starts this postseason.
The final was 9-3 as the Yankees remained undefeated in these playoffs, 3-0 now — 2-0 when Cole starts.
The Yankees offense had a strange performance in that their at-bats up and down the lineup were strong as they only were limited to a single 1-2-3 inning against Tampa Bay’s outstanding pitching. Yet, until Aaron Hicks’ RBI single in the ninth inning, the Yanks had been hitless in 12 at-bats with runners on base. Two batters later, Giancarlo Stanton launched a grand slam that blew the game open.
Clint Frazier and Kyle Higashioka homered, the first time the Yankees had ever received homers from their Nos. 8 and 9 hitters in a playoff game. Higashioka led off the fifth with his blast off Blake Snell to tie the score. With one out, Aaron Judge put the Yankees up 4-3 with a homer. He had been 1-for-18 against Snell before his lined dart.
That set up a bottom of the fifth long on tension and strategy.
Cole struck out Mike Zunino and induced Yandy Diaz to ground out in a combined five pitches. But Brandon Lowe’s full-count walk changed the dynamics of the inning. Because the next two hitters were Randy Arozarena and Ji-Man Choi. In his first two at-bats vs. Cole, Arozarena had smoked a homer 107.3 mph and 102.6 mph single and here the electric rookie smoked another single, this one 103.3 mph. That put runners on the corners.
Most dangerously for Cole, it brought up Choi, a nice player who is Barry Bonds against the Yankees’ ace. He entered this game having reached safely in 13 of 21 at-bats against Cole. In the fourth inning — after an Arozarena single — Choi launched an opposite-field two-run homer that put the Rays ahead 3-2. It was Choi’s fourth-career homer in 19 at-bats against Cole. The lefty-swinger has just four homers this year — but three against Cole.
So when Cole fell behind 2-0, Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake went to the mound. First base was not open, but second was and the decision was made to intentionally walk Choi to load the bases (truly Bonds treatment). Don’t downplay how rare this was. Cole’s manager for the past two years in Houston, A.J. Hinch, essentially eliminated the intentional walk from the Astro playbook. Cole had not intentionally walked a hitter since Sept. 12, 2017, when he was a Pirate and issued one to Travis Shaw, then of the Brewers.
But now there was no margin for error — and the Yankees made an error. With an 0-1 count on Margot, Higashioka shifted for a fastball inside to the righty batter. Cole, though, delivered a breaking ball. Higashioka made a quick, athletic play to shift over and snare the ball — or else the cross-up would have been a score-tying wild pitch.
With the reprieve, Cole dialed up his attack. He went 98.6 mph up and Margot swung through it and then followed it with 100.1. Margot had no chance. Cole exalted with a scream.
Cole then set down the Rays in order in the sixth with two strikeouts and was done — six innings, three runs, one triple-digit fastball. Chad Green and Zack Britton protected the one-run lead before the Yanks eased the tension by breaking it open in the ninth. They won a game they had to win — one started by Cole.
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