NEW YORK -- Yankee Stadium fell into a collective sigh of shock and exasperation when manager Aaron Boone pointed to the bullpen after Gerrit Cole loaded the bases with nobody out in the sixth.
The Yankees’ ace had kept the Astros in check for most of Game 3 of the AL Championship Series on Saturday up until that point, save for a two-run homer that stemmed from a Harrison Bader error in the second.
Did Cole feel like he had more in the tank when he was pulled?
“Yeah,” he said after the Yankees’ 5-0 loss to the Astros, which put New York down, 3-0, in the best-of-seven series. “I feel like, as a pitcher like myself, I'm probably mostly surprised. You know, I always want to keep going.”
Hindsight can be cruel, but the call to the bullpen clearly backfired.
After Alex Bregman’s double, Kyle Tucker’s walk and Yuli Gurriel’s bloop single chased Cole, Lou Trivino took over on the mound. The reliever proceeded to allow a sac fly from Trey Mancini and a two-run single from Christian Vázquez to grow the Yankees’ deficit to five runs and balloon Cole’s final stats.
The Yankees’ starter finished the game with five runs allowed (three earned) on five hits and two walks while striking out seven over five-plus innings. Very few of Cole’s 96 pitches were mistakes, but the Astros once again pounced on whatever opportunities they had.
“We threw consecutive pitches on the edge all night,” said Cole, “and they put really good, convicted swings on pitchers’ pitches. And they obviously had a little bit of luck go their way.”
Bader’s error was perhaps the biggest example of the Yankees’ lack of luck on Saturday.
What should have been a quick second inning was extended when Vázquez hit a fly ball that traveled to right-center. Both Bader and Aaron Judge called for it until the last second, when Judge tried to give way as Bader dropped the ball. A red-hot Chas McCormick capitalized with a two-run blast, extending Cole’s streak of consecutive games with a home run allowed to nine.
“Unfortunate,” said a despondent Cole about the sequence.
But the 32-year-old settled in after that, displaying the usual dominance that’s carried him to a 2.95 ERA and 29.9% strikeout rate over three starts in the 2022 playoffs. That’s why Yankees fans turned their disbelief into a standing ovation as a frustrated Cole left the field on Saturday night.
“I was hoping to get Gerrit through that,” said Boone. “I felt like he threw the ball incredibly well. I got Trivino up just in case he needed some help there with the bottom righties that we liked him against. But obviously, it turned out it didn't work for us.”
On one hand, Cole’s frustration was seemingly warranted. He’s a strikeout pitcher built for the big moments, and they don’t get much bigger than facing your former team with the bases loaded and the season on the line.
But his numbers in high-leverage situations may have justified a chance. Cole pitched to a .250 batting average with an .827 OPS and nine homers with runners in scoring position in the regular season. Trivino’s RISP stats were marginally better -- a .305 opponent average and .772 OPS with no homers -- but in that moment, he represented a well-rested arm with a theoretical matchup advantage.
“Especially [in] playoff baseball, it's always going to come down to a handful of pitches that tip the balance of the game either way,” said Cole. “And as a pitcher, that balance is often irrelevant to what you're trying to do out there. So there's a little bit of a motivation factor to try to pitch better and be the guy that picks people up.”
At times, it seemed like Cole had to go it alone. Yankees batters managed just one hit through 8 2/3 innings on Saturday, failing to provide their ace’s brilliance with any run support.
This lineup has scuffled all series long. Now, it’ll be tasked with attempting a herculean turnaround to give Cole another chance to pitch this year. If the Yankees were to manage a comeback to tie the series, Cole would be in line to pitch Game 7 next week in Houston.
“I mean, we’ve got a shot,” said Cole. “We’ve just got to play it one pitch at a time.”