Asked earlier this week to explain his career-long success against the highest paid pitcher in baseball history, Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi could not come up with a concrete reason. Another homer off Yankees ace Gerrit Cole later, and Choi still can’t. But the results speak for themselves.
In short playoff series, individual matchups can become key. And sometimes, a certain hitter just has a certain pitcher’s number. The 2020 American League Division Series version of that is Choi and Cole, with Choi enjoying the overwhelming advantage.
“He’s a great pitcher and his fastball was on tonight,” Choi said after Monday’s 9-3 Game 1 loss to the Yankees. “I could see he was leaning more toward his fastball because it was working all day. That’s what I was looking for. Other than that, I don’t have any answers as to why I’m successful against him.”
Whatever the reason, the Rays hope it continues. They know they could see Cole again if they push this best-of-five series to five games, after Cole registered six solid innings against them Monday night. Tampa Bay scored all its runs on two swings: a first-inning Randy Arozarena solo homer and a two-run, go-ahead shot in the fourth from Choi, who continues to own the Yankees star.
By rocketing a 1-1 Cole fastball 429 feet to left-center field at Petco Park, Choi improved to 10-for-19 (.526) with four homers lifetime against Cole. He is one of four players -- joining Matt Carpenter, Joey Gallo and Lucas Duda -- to take Cole deep four times in their careers, though Choi himself has never homered more than twice against any other pitcher. Two of his three homers during the 2020 regular season were off Cole.
“I don't want to take credit away from him, but it's probably some bad pitches,” Cole said before Game 1. “At least that's my personal takeaway, because I can't control what kind of swing he puts on the ball. He's obviously put some good swings on some good pitches and some bad pitches. But I think as far as what I can control, I need to make better pitches.”
A .245/.345/.451 career hitter over parts of five big league seasons, Choi has more career hits (10, including postseason) off Cole than any other pitcher. His eight career regular-season RBIs off Cole are twice as many against any other pitcher. Choi also enjoys career success at Petco Park, going 5-for-11 with five extra-base hits at the venue (including these playoffs). Given another chance to retire Choi, Cole instead issued an intentional walk to load the bases with two outs in the fifth. It was the right move, as he struck out Manuel Margot to end the inning.
The rest of the Rays offense was held more in check. Cole scattered just five other hits across six innings, striking out eight against two walks. Three Yankees relievers then held Tampa Bay scoreless while New York jumped ahead and ran away with things, first on homers by Kyle Higashioka and Aaron Judge, then a late Giancarlo Stanton grand slam.
The result is what manager Kevin Cash called a “must win” Game 2 opposite a much less accomplished opponent: Yankees rookie Deivi Garcia. Choi has never faced the young righty.
“He’s a great pitcher and I think facing him just brings the best out of me,” Choi said about facing Cole earlier this week, through an interpreter. “I think the experience of facing him last year in the playoffs and two times this year, I guess the experience has gotten me comfortable facing him.”