TAMPA, Fla. -- Gerrit Cole appreciated seeing his sliders and curves smothered, lauding the pitch selection for his in-game reunion with Gary Sánchez a half-year after their last pairing. Yet what the Yankees' ace enjoyed most was their brief chat on the mound, the catcher’s right hand reassuringly patting the hurler’s left shoulder.
The plug was pulled on the Cole-Sánchez battery last season, as manager Aaron Boone opted to start backup Kyle Higashioka in Cole’s final seven starts, spanning the regular season and playoffs. This spring marks a fresh opportunity for the tandem to build a rapport, beginning with one inning in Monday’s 5-4 Grapefruit League victory over the Tigers.
“He came out at a good time to give me a breather,” Cole said. “I thought we worked well today, and so I was confident throwing anything we needed to. He made some good blocks in the dirt too, so I thought we did a nice job together.”
Beginning his second spring with the Yankees, Cole said that he felt good about his 28-pitch outing, in which he threw 15 strikes and aimed to polish the shape of his breaking balls.
Detroit nicked the right-hander for one run on three hits, including Niko Goodrum’s RBI single to right field. Cole issued a two-out walk on a full-count pitch to Riley Greene, but he pinned the bases loaded by striking out Jake Rogers on a slider that manager Aaron Boone said looked “really good.”
“You want to come out of here healthy and having thrown all your pitches,” Cole said. “There’s always something to work on every time you take the mound. We’ll look to improve on where we started from today. In terms of the shapes of the pitches, the velocity relative to the effort, it was a pretty good start from that standpoint.”
Cole and Sánchez had not worked together in a game since Aug. 31, when Cole took the loss in a start against the Rays. Paired with Higashioka throughout September, Cole pitched to a 3-1 record and a 1.00 ERA, permitting 14 hits and five walks with 34 strikeouts in 27 innings.
With Yankees personnel believing that Higashioka was catching, throwing and hitting the best he had during his professional career, Higashioka continued to earn starts in the postseason. Cole logged victories in his first two starts against the Indians and Rays, then took a no-decision in Game 5 of the American League Division Series. Now Sánchez is back behind the dish.
“We’ve been working a lot here in Spring Training,” Sánchez said through an interpreter. “The idea was to be on the same page and work together seamlessly. I’m trying to do the best I can to help him. He’s also going to help me. Having another year of experience catching him, it also helps.”
Boone said that if the Yankees had advanced to the next round of the playoffs, he planned on having Sánchez catch Cole’s first start. We’ll never know for sure if Boone would have followed through on that, but he is reluctant to lock into a personal catcher scenario, believing it affects his roster management. Cole’s next outing could be with Higashioka, according to the skipper.
“The schedule changes with things that come up here and there,” Boone said. “But I’ll definitely have [Sánchez] work with him. He has worked with him a lot here in the early going, whether it’s been in bullpens or live BPs and things like that. I’ll continue to do that, but it’s not something that I’m like, ‘He’s absolutely with him.’”
That leaves open the possibility that Sanchez will be behind the plate for Cole’s Opening Day assignment on April 1 at Yankee Stadium -- an arrangement with which Cole sounds like he would have no issue.
“I just think we both had a good time out there,” Cole said. “It was both of our first experiences with some fans back at the field for a while. I thought I made some good pitches, we kept the ball in front of us, and he liked how some of the pitches were breaking. He gave me some good feedback on that. It was just a good day.”