Gerrit Cole reached back for his first triple-digit radar-gun reading of the year, a 100.1 mph heater that killed a bases-loaded rally in the fifth inning on Monday. The ace right-hander danced off the mound, unleashing a primal scream that could be heard six stories above the playing field at Petco Park.
It was the type of moment Cole envisioned when he committed for nine seasons in a Yankees uniform, and he expects that there will be more like it to savor this month. Supported by four homers, Cole struck out eight over six strong innings in the Yankees’ 9-3 victory over the Rays, grabbing the opener of the American League Division Series.
“Ultimately, you want to be playing your best baseball when it’s most important,” Cole said. “That’s how you get to the ultimate prize. I’m thankful to be a part of the organization, and thankful for the opportunity to lead the charge into the postseason.”
Giancarlo Stanton’s ninth-inning grand slam blew it open as New York’s bullpen polished off the final nine outs, a convincing victory that wrested control of the Division Series after the Yankees dropped eight of 10 meetings with Tampa Bay during the regular season. In the history of best-of-five postseason series, Game 1 winners have gone on to take the series 98 of 136 times (72 percent).
“It’s one game, and we’ve got to win three,” manager Aaron Boone said. “We know they’re a great team and a great opponent, and we know we’ve got to play our best to beat them.”
Cole had to grind for periods of his 97-pitch effort, coughing up a pair of early leads as he was charged with three runs and six hits. New York struck first against Rays starter Blake Snell, notching a run three batters in as DJ LeMahieu singled, advanced on a wild pitch and groundout, then scored on a sacrifice fly.
Tampa Bay got that run back as Randy Arozarena launched a 2-0 fastball over the center-field wall. Clint Frazier lashed a high heater into the left-field seats for a third-inning blast off Snell, marking Frazier’s first career postseason homer, but Cole ran into personal nemesis Ji-Man Choi in the fourth.
“It seemed like as the game went on, he got a little nastier,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Cole. “It’s amazing how he’s able to dial up his fastball when he needs it, and [Cole] did that. Ji-Man with the big home run, but they answered back.”
Cole has searched for answers concerning Choi’s mystifying mastery, chalking the performance up to a batch of missed spots over the past few years. Cole buzzed a 1-1 fastball that caught too much of the plate, then watched as Choi raked it for an opposite-field, two-run blast -- the journeyman’s fourth homer in 19 lifetime at-bats against Cole.
“This is a tough lineup to navigate, because they’ve got some guys who are swinging a hot bat right now,” said catcher Kyle Higashioka. “We just tried to do our best to change speeds, use the whole plate, keep them off balance. Basically, we just pitched to Gerrit’s strengths.”
Higashioka and Aaron Judge homered off a fatiguing Snell in the fifth, a lead that Cole protected.
There was anxiety as he issued a two-out walk to Brandon Lowe, then surrendered a single to Arozarena and fell behind Choi on a 2-0 count. Pitching coach Matt Blake visited the mound, recommending an intentional walk, though Cole shooed him away.
It turned out to be the right call. Cole needed four pitches to retire Manuel Margot, including a mix-up in which Higashioka signaled for a fastball, then deftly gloved a curveball that darted through the strike zone. Home-plate umpire David Rackley didn’t give Cole the call, but the Yanks were relieved Higashioka somehow snared it.
“I may be biased, but the most important play from Kyle was when I crossed him up,” Cole said. “That goes to the backstop and it could be a totally different ballgame.”
Two more heaters followed, with Cole getting the outfielder to wave at one near his shoulders for strike three.
“Big stage, big moment,” Cole said. “I executed perfectly. I’m glad, because I really got myself into a bit of a mess there.”
Cole then fanned another pair in a clean sixth. Through two postseason starts as a Yankee, Cole has registered 21 strikeouts against two walks, second in franchise history only to Roger Clemens’ 24 punchouts across two starts in the 2000 playoffs. As a member of the Astros, Cole defeated the Rays twice in last year’s ALDS.
“He had to work hard in a couple of those innings and made some huge pitches,” Boone said. “He really stepped on it and emptied the tank in the sixth. He kind of grinded his way and set a good tone for us.”
When the cameras panned to the Yanks’ dugout in the seventh inning, Cole had replaced his sweat-soaked uniform top with a hooded sweatshirt, a clear signal that his work for the evening was done. As far as the postseason is concerned, however, Cole recognizes that they’re still a long way from celebrating.
“Whether it’s the Yankees or any other team, that’s everybody’s goal,” Cole said. “With the most world championships ever, more often than not the Yankees come through.”