HOUSTON -- If there was ever a starting pitcher the Astros have the most confidence in when he’s on the mound, it’s Gerrit Cole. The right-hander hasn’t lost a game in nearly five months, Houston has won his last 14 starts and he blew away the Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series with 15 strikeouts.
Cole, an intense competitor, is enjoying one of the most dominating stretches by a starting pitcher in recent memory, going 17-0 with a 1.69 ERA in his past 23 starts, but if the Astros want to keep their season alive, they’ll need one more gem from the 29-year-old in Thursday’s winner-take-all Game 5 against the Rays at Minute Maid Park.
“He’s an ace,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We look forward to it. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to be fired up and looking to play as well as we can behind him.”
Astros manager AJ Hinch was so confident with Cole waiting in the wings in Game 5 of the ALDS that he rolled the dice in Game 4 and brought back Justin Verlander on three days' rest. It didn’t work out. Verlander gave up four runs in 3 2/3 innings in a 4-1 loss, but Houston brushed aside the setback knowing Cole was available at Minute Maid Park two days later.
Perhaps that’s why the Astros, whose World Series-or-bust expectations will be on the line against a Rays team that dropped Games 1 and 2 in Houston, remain confident despite the heavy weight of their goals hanging in the balance.
“I love that we're here,” Hinch said. “And the way we got here is nerve-wracking just because you don't want to get to a Game 5. We fought all year to have a better record and to win our division to get this particular game at home. And they've got to come into our house and beat us again. With Cole on the mound, I don't know who could be more confident than us.”
Cole’s Game 2 performance was one for he ages. He threw 7 2/3 innings, generating 33 swings and misses. He threw 83 of his 118 pitches for strikes and became the seventh pitcher in postseason history to strike out as many as 15 batters in a playoff game. It was an Astros playoff record.
With Cole leading the way, the Rays didn’t barrel up any balls in Game 2, according to Statcast, and they had only a 27.8 percent hard-hit percentage, which was well below their 41 percent hard-hit average in the other three games of the series.
The Astros are hoping for a repeat performance, because anything less won’t just mean the end of their season, it might mean the end of Cole’s tenure with Houston. An impending free agent, he is without question the top starting pitcher on the market and is likely to draw heavy interest, including from the rival Angels. And so every time he toes the rubber in a potential elimination game this October could be his last for the Astros.
Cole watched the Rays jump on veteran starter Zack Greinke in Game 3 on Monday and Verlander in Game 4 on Tuesday with a disciplined approach in which they cut down on strikeouts and even hit a few homers. Tampa Bay had 25 hits in Games 3 and 4 after only 11 in the first two games in Houston.
“They've played calm, cool and collected,” Cole said. “We know they're a good team. We've known for a long time. To win that many games in the American League East, without Blake Snell for most of the year, without Tyler Glasnow for most of the year, maybe a couple other guys, is really impressive and now they're here at full strength. So it's been a good battle so far, and it will continue on [Thursday].”
Cole’s career-best season, which comes in the final year of his contract with the Astros, didn’t take off until late May. He was a pedestrian 4-5 with a 4.11 ERA through his first 11 starts of 2019 before refining his command and pitch usage. A beast was unleashed.
With Cole on the mound and Houston owning a huge home-field advantage at Minute Maid Park -- the Astros are 62-21 this year at home, including the playoffs -- there won’t be any panic when Cole takes the mound for Game 5.
“That's the reason why we feel pretty good coming back here and playing in front of our fans,” All-Star second baseman José Altuve said. “We have the best record in the MLB playing the home side. And we have Gerrit Cole tomorrow, which is one of the best pitchers you can ever see. It's going to be a good one tomorrow.”