HOUSTON - Gerrit Cole delivered his best performance of the postseason on Tuesday. It just didn't come in the expected form. Anyone watching could be forgiven for mistaking it for a "weaker" outing, given Cole's recent outstanding play. Those looking at the numbers would have evidence that Cole wasn't at his "best". And Astros fans especially will have tales to tell of sweaty palms and elevated heart rates during Game 3 of the ALCS between the Astros and the New York Yankees. (That Didi Gregorius fly ball, amiright??)
But here again, statistics don't tell the whole story. Don't get me wrong; I love baseball statistics. But that's exactly what makes this situation more interesting. Statistics become more fascinating, not less, when they simply can't tell the whole story. When intangibles become more of a factor.
By the numbers, this was Gerrit Cole's "weakest" outing of the postseason. Five walks. Admittedly not the greatest, and Cole expressed disappointment after the game. "Only" seven strikeouts. Oh the horror. And what really made Tuesday's game tough to watch if you were an Astros fan was the constant base traffic by the Yankees.
Yet this is the situation that brought out a different kind of postseason performance from Cole, one that we all knew might need to happen against this Yankees offense and one that in my mind makes it his best. It may feature five walks, more base traffic, and not as many strike outs. It may not have the easy dominance we've gotten used to. But to give statistics their due, there's one stat that tells the most important story of all: zero runs over seven innings. By a torrid Yankee offense. In the postseason. That's why it was Cole's best postseason performance to date.
Let's look at it inning by inning.
From the start, Cole found himself in trouble. DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge immediately exploited the Astros shift for a pair of singles. LeMahieu and Judge, you'll recall, produced the walk and home run combo that burned Justin Verlander for the Yankees' only two runs in Game 2. Not a great start for the blood pressure of Houston fans.
After that, Cole was able to get a couple quick outs, but then walked another dangerous hitter, 22-year-old Gleyber Torres. The bases were loaded. But then, the first of many big escape acts. He was able to get a first-pitch groundout from Gregorius on knuckle curve to end the inning.
In the very next inning, Cole was again in trouble. He got two quick outs, but then faced what proved to be one of the toughest at-bats of the game. Yankee center fielder Aaron Hicks worked the count full and then extended the at-bat the 10 pitches. I remember sitting distraught as Hicks fouled pitch after pitch after pitch, unwilling to let Cole strike him out.
The goal was clear: even if Hicks were retired, he'd worked Cole's pitch count, decreasing the chances that he could go deep into the game. Unfortunately, Cole issued his second walk to Hicks. That was huge trouble. That meant a return to the top of the order. And sure enough, LeMahieu, who for much of the regular season led the league in batting average, picked up another hit on a first-pitch offering.
Yet that gave Cole another chance to produce another magical moment on the next at-bat. After starting Judge with a ball low and away, he struck him out on three consecutive pitches, first a called strike in the zone, then two low off-speed pitches that Judge felt compelled to swing at. It felt like the biggest out of the game to that point. (But again, that Gregorius fly ball, amiright?)
There was no base traffic in the third, but Cole did have to deal with another tough out after getting two quick ones. Just as Hicks had done the previous inning, Gleyber Torres worked the count full and then refused to submit to the strikeout machine. He fouled pitch after pitch, producing a nine-pitch at-bat that again racked up Cole's pitch count and increased the chances that AJ Hinch would have to turn to his bullpen early. Eventually, Cole was able to strike Torres out on a slider high in the zone.
Yet again, after getting two outs, Cole dealt with trouble. He walked Gio Urshela and again had another tough at-bat with Hicks to walk him as well. And again, that brought up LeMahieu. This was again when things could go horribly wrong. But Cole was able to get LeMahieu to fly out to George Springer in center on a slider, and another Yankee threat was retired.
This is the one, folks. Yet again, after getting two outs, Yankee DH Edwin Encarnacion broke out of a slump by getting a double off of Cole. Unfortunately, that brought up Torres again, and that produced another extended at-bat. Eight pitches later, another walk, and two men were on for Didi Gregorius. Ok, say it with me: That Gregiorius fly ball, amiright? Gregious laid into a first-pitch fastball from Cole that put Astros right fielder Josh Reddick well on the warning track before he was able to make the catch, forcing a collective sigh of relief across the greater Houston area.
Much quieter, thankfully. Two strikeouts and a pop-up on 13 pitches, including a much-welcome strike-out of Aaron Hicks.
By now, Cole was over 100 pitches. This inning scared me, because again, the top of the Yankees order was up. But I knew Cole needed to go back out there if he felt up to it. We all know he likes to empty the tank by throwing 100-mph pitches to close things out. But was there a chance Cole's form would falter? Apparently not. He got LeMahieu to line out to Reddick and struck out Judge again before getting Brett Gardner to line out to Springer to put the finishing touches on a 112-pitch masterclass in grit.
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