Even on nights when Gerrit Cole doesn’t have his best stuff, he’s still Gerrit Cole, and over the course of his nine-year career, that’s usually been enough.
That was the case on Friday night, when Cole went toe to toe with fellow No. 1 overall Draft pick Casey Mize in the series opener at Comerica Park. Unfortunately, the Yankees were unable to capitalize on several late-inning opportunities before falling to the Tigers, 3-2, in the 10th.
New York had runners on the corners with two outs in the sixth, two on with two outs in the eighth and runners on the corners with one out in the ninth but failed to break the 1-1 tie each time, finishing 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and stranding 12.
“Obviously, there were a lot of hits out there, a lot of traffic tonight … we just weren’t able to break though,” manager Aaron Boone said.
Detroit didn’t fare much better, and all momentum seemed to be on the Yankees’ side after they finally took the lead on a passed ball in the 10th. Which is why Robbie Grossman’s two-out, two-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the frame was such a cruel surprise.
Though the game was ultimately decided long after both starters departed, Cole’s effort was key in laying the foundation early and preventing Detroit from gaining steam.
The game marked the first time in Yankees history that both starters (Cole, 2011; Mize, 2018) were No. 1 overall Draft picks, and they lived up to the billing by matching each other early. Cole was dinged for a run in the third on three consecutive one-out hits; Mize allowed a homer to Rougned Odor -- one of Odor's four hits on the night -- to open the fifth. Both starters faced 20 batters and scattered five hits through their first five innings, with Mize fanning seven against Cole’s three.
The difference came in pitch economy: Mize bowed out after five frames and 97 pitches, while Cole had thrown 20 fewer pitches and still had one inning left in the tank. The sixth wasn’t his prettiest inning of the night but Cole bulldogged through it, overcoming a leadoff single, a wild pitch and a passed ball, ringing up Nomar Mazara to end the threat with a runner on third.
Cole came out hot, buckling Grossman on a 12-6 knuckle curve before striking out the leadoff hitter on a high fastball in the first. His offspeed stuff lacked its usual crispness afterward, though: Cole drew just two swings and misses on his changeup after opponents went 2-for-43 against it coming in.
“Obviously, I've pitched better, but I thought we did a good job with what we had,” Cole said. “We were able to outlast the other starter -- that's a good takeaway, I guess -- and keep us in the ballgame. There's some positives there, and there's some stuff to try to get after this week, and continue to try to get better.”
The veteran righty might have had to work harder on Friday, but what mattered remained the same: He departed after six innings with just one run against him, giving New York ample opportunity to move to 10-1 on the season against the American League Central.
The Yankees had plenty to be excited about: With Mize out of the game, New York was eager to feast on baseball’s worst bullpen, one that had pitched to a combined 5.55 ERA entering the series.
Except the Tigers’ relief corps had recently experienced a renaissance, holding opponents to a .152 batting average since May 16. New York’s battle to push runs across continued until the 10th when, with Cole keeping watch from the dugout, Aaron Judge started the inning on second base. Two quick outs moved Judge to third before Bryan Garcia’s changeup to Odor clipped the top of catcher Jake Rogers’ glove and squirted away to the backstop, allowing Judge to sprint home with the go-ahead run.
It looked like the defining blow, and the Yankees stood ready to celebrate when Justin Wilson’s fifth pitch to Grossman, his former Minor League roommate, cut in for what appeared to be strike three in the bottom of the 10th.
Home-plate umpire Vic Carapazza ruled it a ball, bringing the count full. Grossman won the game on the next pitch, leaving Wilson to say, “Sometimes they’re called; sometimes they’re not.”
“We just need to keep pushing each other, keep working each other,” Odor said. “I think we've been doing a really good job, but today was a tough game. It's part of the game.”