Cole passed that extra work off to others as he marched into Tropicana Field on Wednesday, his vision locked only on dismantling the Rays’ persistent lineup. That felt like a reprieve for the righty, who struck out 12 over eight dominant innings in the Yankees’ 1-0 victory.
“Any time we get to play right now, it’s like a nice release,” Cole said. “The only thing we have to focus on is playing, and so, in a sense, it’s simpler for us. We get to take our minds off everything that’s happened in the last few days, because that’s our job.”
The Yankees have won 11 of their past 14 games, improving to a season-high four games above .500 at 20-16.
Aaron Hicks lifted a seventh-inning sacrifice fly that provided the necessary margin of victory for Cole, who leaned heavily on his four-seam fastball to scatter four hits without a walk in a stellar 106-pitch performance.
“He’s an ace,” manager Aaron Boone said of Cole. “He is an absolute bulldog. I think he lives for pitching when it’s tough and in the biggest of games. In a 1-0 game, we needed all of it. Even though he breezed through some of those innings and made them look pretty easy, there was a ton on the line with every pitch.”
Cole’s third-inning strikeout of Brett Phillips was the 1,500th of his career. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Cole (1,315 1/3 innings) is the fourth-fastest MLB pitcher to reach the milestone.
The outing marked Cole’s first regular-season victory over the Rays. The right-hander entered Wednesday’s contest 0-4 with a 3.91 ERA in eight career regular-season starts against Tampa Bay. He is 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four postseason starts against the Rays, including a win in last year's American League Division Series.
“I certainly enjoy playing in meaningful games,” Cole said. “There was a lot going on today, and it was a bit challenging to get focused for the game, but once you’re there, it was business as usual. I try to keep that mindset all the time; it’s helpful when there’s a little bit more on the line.”
Catcher Kyle Higashioka said that Wednesday’s circumstances were “a little different than normal,” but he did not notice much difference in Cole once the game started. Cole emptied the tank in the eighth inning, striking out Mike Zunino, Willy Adames and Phillips in a 12-pitch frame.
“He looked pretty dialed in the entire night, but if he needs to find an extra gear to get even better, he’s capable and equipped to do that,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
Cole's final pitch was a 98.8 mph fastball that Phillips swung through. Cole stared toward home plate for a moment, then spent the next few minutes decompressing in the dugout as closer Aroldis Chapman prepared to enter.
“It was probably best to go to Chappy there,” Cole said. “It was such a tightrope for a while. It was a smart decision.”
Slamming the door
Chapman worked a perfect 15-pitch ninth for his ninth save in as many opportunities, ensuring the Yankees’ first series victory at Tropicana Field since May 10-12, 2019.
“You always want to beat any team in your division,” Higashioka said. “Mathematically speaking, you kind of get double credit. It’s definitely good to be able to win the first few games in the series, and we’re hoping for one more [Thursday].”
It was Chapman’s fourth appearance in five days, and Boone said that there was a pregame discussion on the possibility of using Chapman in a save spot.
“Being in a division game takes on a little bit more meaning,” Boone said. “I rarely do this, so there’s a lot of factors that go into it. We have pretty honest dialogue with our relievers and with Aroldis. I felt good about using him tonight.”
Frazier gets tossed
Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier was ejected by home-plate umpire Bill Miller in the fifth inning for arguing balls and strikes.
It was Frazier’s first career ejection, and Boone did not seem pleased with the fact that it came on a night when the bench was short-handed with Gleyber Torres awaiting COVID-19 test results. Brett Gardner played the rest of the game in left field.
“Obviously, playing a man short tonight, that’s not ideal,” Boone said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”