Cole (15 K's) puts Astros on cusp in historic gem

October 7th, 2019

HOUSTON -- Imagine getting shut down for seven innings by Justin Verlander and finding out a day later the domination had just started. On deck for the Rays: -- the other half of baseball’s most intimidating 1-2 starting pitching duo since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who had a performance for the ages Saturday night.

Cole baffled the Rays for 7 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out an Astros franchise playoff record 15 batters -- the most in a postseason game since 2000 -- while allowing one walk and four hits to lead the Astros to a 3-1 victory in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park.

“Well, I'm just happy we got the win,” said Cole, who got 33 swings and misses. “It was tight there at the end. I just was pleased with how we were going about our game plan tonight. We were executing more pitches than not. We put ourselves in a good position to go deep. We put ourselves in a good position to work out of a couple jams.”

In the history of best-of-five postseason series, teams taking a 2-0 lead have gone on to win the series 71 of 81 times (88 percent). In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, those winning Games 1 and 2 at home have won the series 27 of 30 times (90 percent). Of those 27 victories, 18 have been sweeps.

Cole became the seventh pitcher in history to strike out as many as 15 in a playoff game and the first since Roger Clemens in Game 4 of the 2000 AL Championship Series. Cole won his 17th consecutive decision since May 27 to put the Astros one win away from advancing to the ALCS for the third year in a row. The best-of-five series shifts to Tropicana Field for Game 3 on Monday afternoon.

“It's hard to put into words exactly what his performance meant to us tonight, but, man, he was good,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “What a game.”

Despite Cole’s dominance, the Rays had the tying run on base in the ninth when they put three on against closer , who gave up a run-scoring single to Avisail Garcia and left with the bases loaded. was summoned from the bullpen and struck out Travis d’Arnaud and got Kevin Kiermaier to ground out to end the game.

“I thought the walk at the end was enough and a fresh arm in Will Harris in the big moment was what I wanted,” Hinch said.

’s seventh career playoff homer -- in the fourth off Rays starter Blake Snell -- put Houston ahead, 1-0, and gave Cole all he needed. Catcher added a bloop RBI single in the fourth and had an RBI single in the eighth for a 3-0 lead.

Cole joined Hall of Famers Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson as the only pitchers in Major League history with multiple games of at least 12 strikeouts in the playoffs. It was Cole’s Major League-record 10th consecutive game with at least 10 strikeouts -- five of which had at least 14 punchouts.

“When he’s going like that, we just try and get him out of rhythm and try and make something happen, but we couldn’t do it tonight,” Rays shortstop Willy Adames said. “He was majestic.”

Verlander and Cole combined for 23 strikeouts, five hits and 47 swinging strikes in 14 2/3 scoreless innings in the first two games of the series while allowing just two runners into scoring position. Next up for the Astros is former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning in his final start of the regular season.

In an era of openers and speciality-use relievers, the Astros cling to the old school -- because of their personnel. They rely on workhorses who can carry a club deep into games when they’re on like Verlander and Cole have been.

“We got some pretty big boys that can pitch,” Hinch said. “Philosophically, whether it's about the new-age opener or pulling guys third time through, most of the people that support that haven't had Verlander or Cole on their team. Even going back to the pitching staff that we had over the last couple of seasons.”

Cole struck out two batters in the first inning and then blew through the Rays in the second on 10 pitches, whiffing three more. He struck out the side again in the fifth -- giving up a two-out single -- and fanned the first two batters he faced in the seventh. The Rays didn’t get a runner to second base until Kiermaier’s two-out double in the eighth.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bregman said. “Seriously, he's got the best stuff in baseball. He's a bulldog on the mound. … To see Gerrit go out there and dominate the way he did, nobody was surprised because we know the preparation and work that he put in. We love playing behind him.”

Cole was still throwing 99-mph gas as he was emptying his tank in the eighth inning and was pulled after he walked Adames on his 118th pitch, of which he threw 83 strikes. He received a thunderous ovation walking off the mound and waved his glove to the crowd.

“It's the reason why we played 162 and tried to win as many as we could, because we wanted to play in front of these fans,” Cole said. “The ovation was pretty special. They they were standing for the first strikeout of the game three hours before that.”

Cole’s arsenal of pitches was working so well that his 15 strikeouts were spread evenly between his fastball, curve and slider.

“That's not just throwing 100,” Hinch said. “That's locating your pitches. It's mixing your pitches. It's getting punchouts to the same hitter in different ways. It's sensing the moment of when he needed to change his game plan. That performance where he can do that much in so many different ways is the definition of creativity.”

Whether it was the best performance of Cole’s career depends on who you talk to. As far as Hinch is concerned, given that it came in a playoff game, that’s enough proof for him.

“The circumstances, the team, the environment, the time of year,” he said. “It's hard to top that performance.”