HOUSTON -- Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole is no stranger to the World Series.
As a kid, he attended a game in Phoenix during the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and D-backs. He went to every home game of the Fall Classic during the Angels’ run to the title in 2002 and later in life saw the Giants clinch the title in Detroit in 2012. Cole was even in the stands during Game 2 of the 2017 World Series in Los Angeles when the Astros rallied late to stun the Dodgers.
Starting a game in the World Series, though? That’s uncharted territory for Cole, who rolls into his Game 1 start on Tuesday night against the Nationals on an astonishing run of dominance in which he hasn’t lost a game in five months and struck out 39.7 percent of the batters he’s faced this year in the regular season and postseason, the highest percentage in Major League history.
If Cole can cap his remarkable season with one -- and maybe two -- more gems, the Astros have a terrific chance to raise their second championship trophy in three years and give Cole a World Series memory to trump all of his others.
“When you dream as a little kid, you dream about storybook endings and storybook players and scenarios like that,” Cole said. “I feel tremendously humbled to be in this position and … [it] is a little bit surreal.”
When Cole takes the mound on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, it will be on the five-month mark since the last time he lost a game -- May 22. In his 25 starts since, he’s 19-0 with a 1.59 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 258 strikeouts in 169 1/3 innings. For the season, he has more than twice as many strikeouts (358) as he’s allowed hits (152).
“What I've seen of him, he's really good,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “But we've known that, even in his Pittsburgh days, faced him a lot. He's really good. If you look at this whole series, both sides have unbelievable starting pitching.”
Cole getting the ball in Game 1 sets up Astros manager AJ Hinch to use Justin Verlander in Game 2 and Zack Greinke in Game 3. That’s ideal, considering Cole is his most dominant starter, even though Verlander may very well win the AL Cy Young Award and has a long postseason resume.
“When you start lifting weights in the offseason in like November, you’re like, ‘Ah, I’m going to get this thing up so I can get to the World Series,’” Cole said. “Then actually it comes true this time, so it’s a little bit surreal.”
Unlike Verlander, Cole has seen the Nationals quite a bit in his career from his time in the National League with the Pirates. Anthony Rendon (5-for-13) and Trea Turner (2-for-5) are the only Nationals hitters who have had any sort of success against him. But that was before Cole changed his repertoire and mindset and became a dominating strikeout machine.
“I think they're incredibly talented,” Cole said of the Washington hitters. “I think they've had their backs up against the wall early in the year and it just kind of goes to show you the character of the players that they have. I think in the center of the lineup it starts with Anthony Rendon being the tone setter, a really special talent, probably a generational talent. We'll have to see how it all plays out.
“But if it goes as expected he'll probably end up in the Hall of Fame. He's so cool and calm and collected. And I think a lot of his players feed off that. And he takes care of the baseball on both sides of the ball, both defensively and offensively. His approach is really deliberate. And they have a lot of really great supporting characters that surround him.”
Cole is a free agent at the end of the season, and he will be the biggest pitching name on the market. His chances of returning to Houston were likely diminished when Greinke was traded to Houston, but he has a chance to reach legendary status if he leads the Astros to another championship.
“It’s a blessing being behind the plate when he’s pitching,” veteran catcher Martín Maldonado said. “I think the ability he has to attack the hitters, throw strikes, make pitches -- we saw in that game in New York he had a couple of times he got out of a jam. I think it’s impressive to be behind the plate and see him work for the last two, 2 1/2 months.”