Cole in rare air with 300-K season

September 19th, 2019

HOUSTON -- The pathway to 300 strikeouts started during the spring of 2018 for Astros right-hander . Houston, coming off a World Series win, had traded for Cole a few weeks before Spring Training started, and it didn’t take Cole long to bend the ears of Cy Young Award-winning teammates Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel.

Cole, who had already established himself as a steady starter with the Pirates, was looking for more. He was looking for an edge in big situations. He asked Verlander and Keuchel how he could strike out more batters. That conversation led to a dinner and many more conversations throughout the rest of the year. He was a sponge for knowledge.

In short, Cole changed his game plan in the way he attacks hitters and retooled his arsenal and blossomed into one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. And in Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Rangers at Minute Maid Park, Cole punctuated his remarkable season by surpassing 300 strikeouts while winning his 14th consecutive decision.

Cole became just the 18th pitcher in MLB history to notch at least 300 strikeouts in a season. Those 18 hurlers have combined for 37 overall campaigns of 300-plus Ks.

“It’s really special,” said Cole, who struck out 10 batters in eight innings to give him 302 for the season. “I can’t really put it into words.”

Cole’s 300th strikeout came when he got Rangers designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo swinging through an 89-mph changeup to end the sixth. He knew entering the game he needed eight strikeouts to reach 300, but had lost count. When the crowd erupted into a standing ovation as Cole walked off the mound, he stopped to wave and acknowledge them, while soaking up the moment.

“It became pretty obvious, and I just wanted to spend a minute with the fans and thank them for the ovation and thank them for all the support,” Cole said. “I don’t typically think about these things, but I did want to try to get it done tonight here in front of our fans. They’ve come out in large numbers all year and they’re so much fun to play in front of. It was just a blessing to be able to get it done tonight.”

Back to the conversations with Verlander and Keuchel. They helped him get acclimated and get a better understanding of how analytics explain what his strengths are and what his best pitches are. He began throwing harder and spinning his breaking pitches harder and more consistently. He threw more four-seam fastballs and curveballs and fewer changeups and sinkers.

“We sat down for a handful of hours, whether it be at the field and over dinner, and here we are at 300 strikeouts in a season,” he said. “It’s a reflection of the catching staff that has been just amazing preparation-wise. The defense just giving me the confidence to pound the zone, as well as the offense. It’s more oftentimes than not having some sort of a lead to work with, which is also a blessing. I’m really humbled, but there’s a lot of people that have contributed to it, not just me.”

Cole (18-5) is the fourth active pitcher to reach 300 strikeouts, joining Max Scherzer (2018), Chris Sale (2017) and Clayton Kershaw (2015). He reached double-digit strikeouts for the 19th time this season and seventh time in a row, tying Verlander’s club record, set earlier this year. The only other pitchers to have at least 19 double-digit strikeout games in one season are Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez.

“He’s incredible,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “I think he’s a special player. He’s a special person. It was a big night for him. That was a big accomplishment. He did it in a win. He finished his outing in a critical fashion. Our entire team was excited for him. He’s been a workhorse for us the entire year. These performances that he just rattles off is not easy. He makes it look a lot easier than it is. It starts with his preparation and ends with his execution, and his intensity is unmatched.”

Cole could soon have company in the 300-strikeout club. Verlander is 17 strikeouts shy of 300 for the season and 11 away from becoming the 18th pitcher in history to reach 3,000 for his career. He’s scheduled to start again Sunday against the Angels in the latest salvo in a fascinating AL Cy Young Award race.

But this night belonged to Cole.

“The accomplishment is a season-long accomplishment for him,” Hinch said. “You congratulate him on that, but more important on the night-to-night basis when he’s pitching, the way he’s into the game and he knows how important that last out was for him and for our team. You congratulate him on getting another win. It wasn’t easy.”