With the season on the line in a winner-take-all showdown against the Boston Red Sox, there isn’t any pitcher we could want on the bump more than Gerrit Cole. A suitable candidate for the 2021 Cy Young Award, Cole notched a 3.23 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and 243 strikeouts in 181.1 innings of work.
Even so, Cole has notably struggled in his last three games. Against Cleveland on September 19th, he gave up an uncharacteristic ten hits and seven earned runs, and on September 24th against the Red Sox, he gave up another five hits and three earned runs, despite earning a tick in the win-column.
While Cole has proven himself able to go the distance and deliver a complete game (see: July 10th against the Astros), it is necessary to consider the possibility that he may struggle during this outing. Cole suffered a hamstring injury about a month ago, and hasn’t looked sharp since returning from the IL. He’s an ace and should be expected to perform as such, but the Yankees also must stay prepared for a scenario in which Cole struggles at less than 100 percent. Should such an occasion arise where Cole just doesn’t have it for this game, Aaron Boone should be willing and prepared to turn to his vaunted bullpen in relief.
Such an event has occurred very recently. In 2017, Luis Severino led the Yankees into their Wild Card Game against the Minnesota Twins. Sevy was the team’s unquestioned ace at the time, coming off a campaign that featured a 2.98 ERA in 193.1 innings. And yet, Brian Dozier led off the game with the home run. After only one out recorded, the Twins led 3-0 and Severino was removed in the shortest appearance for a starting pitcher in modern Yankee playoff history. Chad Green came on in relief, and from then on it was a collective effort, ultimately resulting in an 8-4 victory for the Yankees thanks to 8.2 stellar innings from the bullpen.
Although I think I can speak for us all when I say I hope such a situation doesn’t arise today, Boone has a number of options at his disposal if it should.
From the bullpen, Severino is fresh, having thrown only 16 pitches last Thursday. Similarly, Michael King delivered only 13 pitches on Saturday. On Sunday, Green threw 24, but should be fully available today. On that same day, Aroldis Chapman pitched only 18 and will be available to close.
If Boone still finds himself in the position where he needs more innings out of his bullpen, Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Wandy Peralta have each had shining moments in 2021. They dealt between 31 to 37 pitches over the last 3 days, but at the very least, Holmes and Loáisiga are unlikely to remain in the bullpen all day long. Lastly, though Lucas Luetge and Joely Rodriguez threw 53 and 38 pitches respectively on Saturday, they are core members of the bullpen and may be considered should the Yankees find themselves in a bind.
Another interesting consideration for Boone would be to implement Néstor Cortes Jr. With a season ERA of 2.90, Cortes has been a truly remarkable and unforeseen boon to the club. While the rest of the starting staff (Cole, Severino, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and Jordan Montgomery) had stints on the IL, Cortes has at times held the rotation together. With his last outing on October 1st and totaling only 4.2 innings, Cortes will have three days of rest— perhaps enough for an inning or so of support. The fact that he uses unusual arm angles and has pitched out of the bullpen before probably helps his case as well.
Of course, run production is going to play a monumental role in today’s game, but Yankee fans will feel rather confident in placing the ball in Cole’s capable hands. Should they find that he doesn’t have the right stuff, however, there is no need to panic, nor for Boone to feel as though he needs to extend his ace. The extensive, well-rested, and respected bullpen will hopefully be enough to keep the Red Sox in check and send the Yankees to the ALDS.