The New York Yankees desperately need Gerrit Cole to come through in the clutch.
The Yankees have dug themselves a two-game hole against the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series, failing to deliver in key situations and striking out a combined 30 times over the first two games at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
Now, the Yankees will hand the ball back to their ace on normal rest as they return home to try and counter-punch the Astros’ opening barrage in Game 3 Saturday at Yankee Stadium. First pitch is 5:07 p.m.
“Regardless, if it’s 2-0 or if it’s 1-1 or it’s 0-2, it can’t affect the way I go about my business,” Cole said Thursday night following the Yankees’ Game 2 loss.
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“We all have a job to do. We play each and every game in and of itself, play each and every pitch within each and every game until there’s no more pitches to play, win or lose.”
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Heading into the postseason, questions swirled about who should make the Yankees’ Game 1 start against the Cleveland Guardians: Cole or Nestor Cortes.
Cole helped silence his doubters with his performance in the ALDS on the heels of a disappointing abbreviated start in last season’s lopsided loss to the Boston Red Sox in the AL Wild Card game.
Cole boosted the Yankees to a 4-1 win over the Guardians in the division series opener with eight strikeouts and one earned run allowed in 6.1 innings, and then answered the call in a must-win Game 4 in hostile territory to help the Yankees stave off elimination.
With the Yankees’ backs against the wall, Cole picked up another eight strikeouts and brushed aside a rock-the-baby taunt by Cleveland’s Josh Naylor after giving up his lone run on a solo shot.
Now, Cole will look to deliver once again in a key spot.
“Hopefully he can go out, and I feel like we’ve done a decent job of attacking these guys, hopefully he can hold them down and get us off to a good start and then we can do enough offensively,” Aaron Boone said. “We know we’re up against it, certainly, but we look forward to going out and trying to win a baseball game and that’s kind of as far as we look into it.”
This time, it will come against his former team in his home ballpark, where he always dreamed he would one day pitch.
“There’s a part of every baseball player that I think really enjoys making the fan base happy, just enjoys making the people in the ballpark happy, or vice-versa if you’re in an opposing team’s ballpark,” Cole said. “Anytime that we can go back there, we worked really hard to be in this position, worked really hard to get through the division series, so we’re excited to celebrate that hard work at the beginning of the game with the fans and excited to get after baseball.”
Saturday is not an elimination game, though it certainly feels like it.
A 3-0 deficit against the defending American League champions would certainly spell disaster. During the regular season, the Yankees lost five out of seven to the Astros, and the postseason has gone even worse thus far.
The Astros have struck the critical blows in the opening two games, with solo home runs by Yuli Gurriel and Chas McCormick off Yankees reliever Clarke Schmidt, boosting them to a 4-1 win in Game 1, and Alex Bregman plating all three of the Astros’ runs with a three-run homer off Luis Severino in Wednesday’s 3-2 result.
Cole says he expects the margin for error to be razor-thin against the all-too-familiar offensive juggernauts on Saturday. He cited the Astros’ six-run comeback in an extra-inning win over the Seattle Mariners in ALDS Game 1 as reason to remain engaged with every pitch.
“It’s tough to narrow it down to one thing, but probably one characteristic that connects all the dots is the way they play together,” Cole said. ‘Whatever it is in any given game, they’re going to try to gang tackle you really and play till the whistle blows, like what they would say in the NFL.
“It’s just a very team-oriented mentality, and I feel that’s probably a commonality amongst any good teams or any teams that are getting this deep in the postseason.”
But Gerrit Cole can’t do it alone
Over the last two seasons, Cole has had success against the Astros, but he needs a little bit of help.
On June 25, he allowed one run over seven innings with eight strikeouts at home, but the offense came up empty in a 3-0 loss. And one of the Yankees’ most memorable starts of 2021 was Cole’s complete-game, 129-pitch shutout against the Astros when Boone could not pry the ball out of his hands during a ninth-inning visit.
It might take that same type of performance to change the direction of the series.
“Gerrit’s pretty consistent in how he goes about things and his process and I feel like pretty intense no matter what,” Boone said. “He’s locked in every day and really one of those guys that’s hooked up every day and invested in everything, even on the days he doesn’t pitch. On the days he’s pitching, there’s an energy and a focus and intensity that I don’t think really changes based on score.”
Cole knows he can’t do anything to rectify the Yankees’ offensive struggles, but he can do his part by shutting down the Astros at Yankee Stadium.
“I feel like I should probably dedicate all my focus to Houston hitters, really.” Cole said. “That’s probably the best way to combat that.”