Yanks' Blake on Cole: 'He's in a really good spot'

July 2nd, 2020

NEW YORK -- One of Gerrit Cole’s most recent visits to the Yankee Stadium mound took place in last year’s American League Championship Series, when the right-hander fired heat before a raucous crowd of nearly 49,000. Those seats were empty on Thursday afternoon, though to pitching coach Matt Blake, the ace’s intensity appeared to be in midseason form.

Peppering the strike zone with fastballs that Blake said registered between 95-99 mph, Cole completed three simulated innings against Yankees teammates Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Luke Voit. While Cole has kept active during baseball’s shutdown, even tossing bullpen sessions at the Stadium in recent weeks, Thursday’s action marked his first time facing hitters of that caliber since Spring Training halted in March.

“He looked good today,” Blake said. “He's moving right along in his progression. We kind of set the bar for kind of what we're going to build on, targeting three weeks out and getting ready for the regular season. He’s in a really good spot, and the nice thing is it doesn't take fans in the stands to get him amped. We're good there.”

Right-hander Adam Ottavino, who has served as Cole’s workout partner during the shutdown, also tossed two innings from the mound. Bullpen catcher Radley Haddad was behind the plate, with manager Aaron Boone and assistant hitting coach P.J. Pilittere among those looking on behind a net stationed in the middle of the infield.

Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million contract as he jumped from the Astros to the Yankees this past offseason. He is expected to serve as the Yankees’ Opening Day starter when the regular season begins on July 23 or 24.

“He's pretty close to game speed,” Blake said of Cole. “I think we’re game-ready with velocity. Now it's kind of just fine-tuning it and sustaining over longer pitch counts. I think he feels good about where he is. He’s always a critic of himself, tightening things up [like] a certain pitch to a certain location. I think we're building a nice baseline for him.”

Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka played catch during Thursday’s workout, and Tanaka is expected to toss from the mound on Saturday. Left-hander James Paxton is expected to be a full go for Summer Camp after recovering from lower back surgery performed in February.

“Paxton was obviously one that was really critical for us to be able to build up,” Blake said. “He's in a really good spot. He'll be one of the most built up coming in here. Knock on wood, we feel good about the health of our team coming into camp. Now getting them in and building them up will be the critical period, where we want to make sure we don't push them too fast.”

As the Yankees plot how to handle the next three weeks, Blake said that he envisions beginning the regular season with a five-man starting rotation. The likely choices for that group would be Cole, Tanaka, Paxton, J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery, though other choices could include Jonathan Loaisiga, Clarke Schmidt, Deivi Garcia and Michael King.

“As we look at some of the matchups and how some of the guys are performing or feeling coming out of the gate, I think there's definitely some different routes we can go,” Blake said. “An opener is something that we've been using here in the past, and we've got some really interesting options if we went that route or a bullpen day, so I do think all those things are on the table.”

The Yanks’ starters have been capped at three innings or about 60 pitches in their workouts away from the club, with relievers tossing about a third of that. Because starters will only have three weeks to build stamina rather than the usual six or seven weeks afforded by Spring Training, Blake said he believes all clubs will lean on their bullpens when the regular season begins.

“There's a lot of ground to cover in this next 21-day period or so, but I think the general plan would be to err on the side of caution,” Blake said. “I hope that we can get four to five innings out of some of these guys, and we'll see what else transpires in the meantime.”