Gerrit Cole pitched out of a jam and danced from the mound at Sahlen Field, pumping his right fist and bellowing toward his team's dugout. In what was expected to be his final start of the regular season, the Yankees' ace sure looked like he was playoff-ready.
Cole permitted only a solo homer over seven sharp innings, leading his club to its ninth victory in 11 games. Aaron Hicks drove in three runs as the Yankees defeated the Blue Jays, 12-1, on Tuesday evening in Buffalo, N.Y.
"I just kept trying to get better every time I took the ball," Cole said. "I felt like more often than not, I did that. It's nice to be finishing strong going into the postseason."
Unless Cole unexpectedly pitches this weekend, the right-hander will complete his first year in pinstripes with a 7-3 record and 2.84 ERA, with 94 strikeouts against 17 walks over 12 starts (73 innings). Manager Aaron Boone described Cole's debut season as "outstanding."
"One of the reasons we brought [Cole] here is to be that ace that can go up against anyone," Boone said. "I feel like he's pitching his best baseball right now, and I feel like he's very much ready to set a good tone for us starting in the postseason."
With the victory, the Yankees' magic number to secure second place in the American League East rests at one. The Bombers (32-23) are pursuing the Twins (33-22) for the No. 4 seed in the American League, which would secure home-field advantage for the Wild Card Series.
Cole has said that he has been finding his groove, having limited opponents to two earned runs over his last 21 innings (0.86 ERA), all of which came with catcher Kyle Higashioka behind the plate.
Boone said that he anticipates keeping the Cole-Higashioka battery together in the playoffs, and Cole's continued progress comes as a good sign for a Yanks squad that will lean heavily upon his services as it prepares for the most important games of its season.
"He's got a real good understanding of his attack plan," Boone said. "He develops the game plan as the week unfolds, then goes out there and executes it. He uses all his pitches effectively, isn't afraid to shy away from any pitch in any situation and he's filling up the strike zone."
Cavan Biggio's fourth-inning homer was the only blemish on Cole's line, as he scattered five hits and struck out seven without a walk, generating 11 ground-ball outs and 14 swings and misses.
"I was feeling pretty good tonight," Cole said. "I thought the execution of pitches was at a really high level and most of the pitches were executed. We made some good pitches. The defense was sharp tonight and we played a great team game."
New York battered right-hander Tanner Roark for six runs and seven hits over 4 1/3 innings. Hicks tripled home a run and scored on a wild pitch in the first inning, staking Cole to an early lead, then greeted Thomas Hatch with a two-run single in the fifth.
"I've been trying to make adjustments all year; trying to hit the ball a little bit more to left field, trying to use the center of the field," Hicks said. "I'm starting my load a little bit earlier and just trusting my hands."
Gio Urshela enjoyed the second four-hit game of his career, driving in two runs, while Aaron Judge stroked three hits -- his best performance in five games since returning from the injured list late last week. Gleyber Torres added three of the Yanks' 15 hits, with the club faring 8-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
"It was great to put a couple out there early, and then Gerrit took it from there," Boone said. "He was terrific again, but it was good to see the offense string together a ton of really good at-bats tonight. A lot of guys had big nights."
The prize of last winter's free agent market, Cole agreed to a nine-year, $324 million pact with the understanding that he would be judged by championship rings, not by regular season stats -- managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner relayed as much at his introductory news conference, opining that the contract should produce "multiple" World Series titles.
At the time, Cole said that he welcomed that pressure, remarking that it should be viewed as "a privilege." He has officially passed the first checkpoint.
"I'm glad that we were able to go out and put together a pretty good campaign, for as short as it was," Cole said. "It's obviously not 162 [games] and there are a lot of challenges there. The challenges this year have been unique and we did a good job trying to overcome them."