Cole battles to blank Astros: 'That took guts'

Yankees ace allows only 3 hits with 12 K's on season-high 129 pitches

July 11th, 2021

Three strikes separated from a shutout and the Yankees ace snarled atop the mound, barking a few choice expletives that began with the letter “F” into the face of his manager. On this night, in this ballpark, absolutely no one was taking the baseball out of his right hand.

Cole’s start had been in jeopardy days prior, having received IV drips during the club’s visit to Seattle. Bracing for a short outing, the Yankees instead watched Cole dig deep for one of the team’s gutsiest pitching efforts in recent memory, blanking the Astros on three hits in a 1-0 victory on Saturday in his first start at Minute Maid Park as a Yankee.

“We needed a win,” Cole said. “We were shorthanded in the ‘pen and I had a good feel. The situation kind of lined up that I was good and could go deep. These games are pretty important right now, especially against a good team. They only get more important as we keep going forward.”

Cole completed his memorable night by gassing a 99.1 mph fastball past Yordan Alvarez, letting loose a guttural roar. The right-hander’s 12th strikeout came on his 129th pitch, a career high and the most thrown by any pitcher in the Majors this season, surpassing a 126-pitch effort by the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer.

It was Cole’s fifth career complete game and third shutout; his only other nine-inning shutout came on May 4, 2018, when he was with Houston. The Yankees have blanked the AL West-leading Astros in the first two games of this series as they aim for a sweep on Sunday.

“Probably one of the great ones I’ve ever seen, certainly in a regular-season setting,” manager Aaron Boone said. “It’s a big weekend for us, with him coming back here for the first time. Honestly, two days ago I didn’t know if he was going to be able to make the start. Not only does he go out there, he does that. That’s about as special as it gets.”

Observed Astros manager Dusty Baker: “He reached back at the end. It was similar to Tom Seaver. In the late innings, he would kind of ditch the rest of his pitches and rely on the fastball, especially the high fastball."

Cole had thrown 112 pitches through eight innings, and though struggling closer Aroldis Chapman warmed in the bullpen, Cole exchanged no handshakes on the bench. Jose Altuve laced Cole’s first pitch for a single, but Cole retired Michael Brantley on a flyout and fanned Yuli Gurriel on a checked swing before Boone’s mound visit. Boone described it as a temperature check.

As Cole recalled: “I said the ‘F’ word a lot and I kind of just blacked out. I don’t really remember what I told him, to be honest.”

“Either way, I knew [Alvarez] was his last batter,” Boone said. “I just wanted to give him a breather and see where I felt like those guys were. Essentially, [he said], ‘Let’s go punch a ticket and let’s go.’ He was fired up, but I also thought very much under control.”

The exchange between pitcher and manager recalled Mike Mussina’s iconic 2006 outburst, in which he directed Joe Torre to remain in the dugout. Cole’s route-going performance came as he bounced back from a pair of disastrous outings against the Mets and Red Sox, struggles that coincided with Major League Baseball’s crackdown on pitchers’ use of sticky substances.

Boone revealed Cole’s illness after the game, saying that the hurler had been “under the weather” for several days in Seattle. Cole said he had been “miserable,” skipping his between-starts lifting program and ingesting four liters of fluids to get through Saturday’s game.

“I don’t think we were sure he was going to start today, so that was definitely a big boost that he could even go out there,” catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “You don’t know how far he’s going to go, because he hadn’t been feeling great. For him to power through that, that was pretty special.”

Houston didn’t have a baserunner until the fourth inning and was held hitless into the fifth. Abraham Toro’s stolen base in that frame marked the Astros’ only runner in scoring position against Cole, who walked two. Cole has now defeated each Major League team at least once.

“I can’t say enough about that,” said Aaron Judge, whose third-inning homer provided Cole with the only run he’d need. “That took guts, that took heart. That’s why he’s our ace. People can say what they want about different things going on or he’s not the same, but he is the same guy. He brought the intensity all night.”

Judge’s 419-foot drive off Zack Greinke marked the All-Star’s team-leading 21st homer. As Judge approached third base on his trot, he pinched the front of his uniform jersey, seemingly mimicking a gesture that Altuve made after his pennant-winning blast two years ago.

Judge quipped that he was telling his teammates to “button up” because the 73-degree conditions were chilly with the roof closed. The gesture might have gone unnoticed in the Yankees’ dugout -- Boone and Higashioka both claimed to have missed it -- but the louder statement of the night unmistakably belonged to Cole.

“I wasn’t out there to really prove anything -- just to do my job,” Cole said.