NEW YORK -- Gerrit Cole had nearly as many walks as strikeouts on Tuesday, which typically would have been an ominous sign for the Astros. He didn’t blow the Yankees away, recording only one strikeout on his fastball. Cole failed to reach double-digit strikeouts for the first time since Aug. 1.
Still, Cole’s workmanlike outing against the Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series drew accolades from all corners of the visiting clubhouse, and it may have been his most impressive outing this season. It was certainly his grittiest.
Working without his best stuff, Cole delivered one of the most clutch pitching performances in Astros playoff history by holding the Yanks’ powerful offense scoreless for seven innings and stealing the show in a 4-1 win at Yankee Stadium.
“Just because he didn’t strike out 15 guys doesn’t mean he didn’t have a good game,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “He had an unbelievable game, made really, really good pitches when he needed to. That’s a tough lineup to strike out.”
Since losing Game 1 in Houston, the Astros have wrestled back home-field advantage from the Yankees, taking a 2-1 series lead. They are two wins away from their second World Series appearance in three years heading into Thursday's Game 4, which was postponed one day because of rain on Wednesday.
“We showed up at the ballpark today feeling like it’s a must-win game for the simple fact Gerrit was on the mound,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said.
In all best-of-seven postseason series, teams taking a 2-1 lead have gone on to win 98 of 139 times (71 percent). When series with the current 2-3-2 format have been tied 1-1, those winning Game 3 on the road have gone on to take the series 28 of 38 times (74 percent).
The offensive firepower came from José Altuve (first inning) and Josh Reddick (second inning), who hit solo homers off Yanks starter Luis Severino. The Astros pushed a pair of runs across in the seventh on a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly for a 4-0 lead, causing hope to dissipate in the Bronx.
“It's obviously a little frustrating we weren't able to break through with him,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “But I think up and down [the lineup] we gave ourselves a chance. And any time you're facing a guy like that, you want that kind of traffic. And we had that in several innings. He made big pitches when he had to.”
Cole walked a career-high-tying five batters and struck out only seven, ending his streak of consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts at 11, but he still managed to improve to 19-0 in his last 25 starts to extend the longest single-season win streak in baseball history. Houston is 16-0 in his last 16 starts.
“I actually think the beginning of the game he had a hard time finding his stuff and finding his tempo, his rhythm,” Hinch said. “He was still getting through his outing, made some really big pitches, had some pressure on him. Then once he found his curveball, it was pretty lights out. I think he finished his outing as strong as ever.”
Early on, Cole managed the game and avoided damage until his pitches came together. He only had three swinging strikes on the fastball, with a third-inning strikeout of Brett Gardner the only whiff he recorded on the pitch. Cole allowed nine baserunners for just the fourth time in 36 starts this year.
“Obviously, tonight fastball command was a bit of a struggle and, for some reason, it wasn't early in the inning, it was more late in the inning,” he said. “I don't really have a reason for that right now, but I know it will be better next time. But we needed to score a few runs tonight. We needed to play some sharp D, especially towards the end of the game.”
He received a scare in the fifth, when Didi Gregorius lifted a deep fly ball to right field. It died on the warning track in Reddick's glove, representing the last gasp of the Yanks' efforts against Cole.
"Yeah, I mean we wanted to go fastball in, we got it in for the most part," Cole said. "When he initially hit it, the trajectory was more towards second base or where the second baseman would normally be. We shift Didi so Altuve is in right field. So initially off the bat I wasn't worried, and then I turned around and realized where we were playing and so I got a little worried. Reddick kind of drifted back. He usually -- when he's got a bead on it, it keeps my blood pressure down a little bit.
"But the emotions kind of followed the fly ball, right? So it was kind of like low to freaking out to not so worried anymore. And we had to make some big pitches in some spots."
Cole, who struck out 25 batters in two dominating starts against the Rays in the AL Division Series, became the first pitcher in Astros history and first overall since Detroit’s Justin Verlander in 2013 to begin the postseason with three consecutive games of at least seven innings pitched and no more than one run allowed.
At 89 pitches through five innings, Cole sent the Yankees down in order in the sixth and seventh to put the finishing touches on his 112-pitch outing. He worked around traffic early, pitching out of a bases-loaded mess in the first and stranding two runners in the second, fourth and fifth innings. The Yanks couldn’t touch Cole late.
“When he doesn't have a pitch or he doesn't have command or he doesn't have something else, he figures out a way to get the job done,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We all can learn a lot from that."
The win assured Cole will get the ball again for the Astros this year, whether it’s later in the ALCS or in the World Series.
“There's a lot more work to do, and it's just too much fun to stay in the moment right now,” Cole said.