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Ahead of the Wild Card, a look at Gerrit Cole in elimination games

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The Yankees’ ace has a solid history of pitching in win-or-go-home situations.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It took them until the ninth inning of the very last game of the year, but the New York Yankees clinched an appearance in the Wild Card game on Sunday afternoon. In tonight’s win or die game, the Yankees will send Gerrit Cole to the mound at Fenway Park, looking to eliminate the archrival Boston Red Sox.

It’s the kind of situation in which the Yankees envisioned throwing Cole when they signed him to a $300 million deal almost two years ago. His 2.68 postseason ERA in 13 starts is obviously excellent, but with a must-win game looming, it’s worth asking how he has fared specifically pitched in win-or-go-home games. Tonight will be his fifth such playoff start, tied with Roger Clemens for the most all-time.

2013 NLDS Game 5

Cole’s first elimination start was with the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 5 of the 2013 National League Division Series. He had been superb in his first career playoff start in Game 2, tying the series against the St. Louis Cardinals by earning the win with six innings of one-run, two-hit ball. Facing off with Adam Wainwright in the clincher though, Cole was tagged with the loss to keep the Pirates from advancing. He pitched five innings, allowing two runs on three hits with five strikeouts. The Cardinals were able to get to him early when David Freese hit a two-run home run in the second inning.

Cole was simply outdueled by Wainwright, who pitched a complete game. While New York would certainly love more innings from Cole today, it was not altogether a bad start.

2015 NL Wild Card

Cole’s next elimination game was his only previous Wild Card Game start, when his 98-win Pirates took on the 97-win Chicago Cubs. This start was decidedly poor. While Jake Arrieta absolutely crushed the Pirate batters with an 11-strikeout complete game, Cole struggled, allowing four earned runs in five innings. Kyle Schwarber drove in three runs against him in the first three innings, including two on a mammoth home run.

Arrieta was simply unstoppable that season, and while the Red Sox have no one on that level this year, Cole will have to do better at keeping his team in the game this time.

2019 ALDS Game 5

Cole would wait until 2019 to pitch his next elimination game, by which time he’d been traded to the Houston Astros and was a much more dominant pitcher. Facing the Tampa Bay Rays, this time Cole was truly excellent, striking out 11 and keeping his opponent to one run on two hits over eight innings pitched. The Yankees will take something like that again today, and gladly.

We won’t discuss what happened with the Astros once they advanced to the ALCS. It’s not for kind eyes.

2020 ALDS Game 5

Finally, Cole’s most recent elimination game start came on the last day of New York’s 2020 season. New York lost to the Rays, 2-1, though that wasn’t on their starting pitcher. Cole threw 5.1 innings on short rest, striking out nine and only allowing one run on a solo shot by Austin Meadows.

Aroldis Chapman, you may recall, was the pitcher to lose that game for the Yankees. While again, more innings pitched could have been helpful, ultimately Cole did his job three days after his Game 1 start, and left the game with his team in a position where they could win.

The Yankees, then, just have to hope that Cole doesn’t have a repeat of his lone Wild Card start. He has struggled a bit to end the season, probably costing him the Cy Young award, but he obviously still has the stuff to shut down any opposing lineup. With the Yankees having a wealth of long relief options in a bullpen, around six innings with lots of strikeouts, as is about his average in elimination starts, should be enough to win if the offense can get anything going.