The third inning on Tuesday night in the Bronx had an auspicious beginning. Rookie Steven Kwan, who had just six home runs all season, took advantage of the short porch in right to give the Cleveland Guardians a 1-0 lead. A 2-2 fastball plunked Amed Rosario, and José Ramírez drilled a 2-1 slider into the left-center field gap for a double. Runners were now on first and second with just one away and the heart of the order coming up. Understandably, fans feared the worst: Gerrit Cole, who had struggled with the big inning all season, was about to give up a crooked number to the Guardians and put the Yankees in a deep hole early in Game 1 of the ALDS.
As fans watched the Yankees ace work his way out of trouble against Josh Naylor, Oscar Gonzalez, and Andrés Giménez to end the third, many were confident that if the lineup successfully scored some runs to secure the win, this sequence would be the turning point of the game. Sure enough, Harrison Bader tied it in the bottom of the frame with a solo shot of his own, and Jose Trevino and Anthony Rizzo tacked on more runs later, while the Guardians were unable to seriously threaten the rest of the way. So how did Cole thread the needle and escape the inning without further damage?
The story begins not with two on and Naylor up, but as the ball whistled through the October night at 105.5 mph off Ramírez’s bat. It was immediately clear that this one was going for extra bases; the only question was whether or not it would split the outfielders and go to the wall. Bader, after all, was shaded slightly towards right-center field, anticipating Ramírez to pull the ball. Rosario, one of the fastest runners in the league — his 29.5 ft/s sprint speed ranked in the 96th percentile this season — was off to the races from the jump. Barring a perfect play, he’s headed for the plate, with a better-than-average chance of extending the lead to 2-0.
And, well, as Josh noted earlier today, Bader played it perfectly.
This is why the Yankees sent Jordan Montgomery to the Cardinals at the trade deadline. Bader took an absolutely perfect angle to the ball, cutting it off well before the wall; he then backhanded it like an infielder, which allowed him to get the throw off quickly. This combination forced Rosario to hold at third, serving as a testament to Bader’s tremendous defensive acumen in center.
With runners on second and third and just one out, Cole began to attack the bottom and inside part of the zone, looking for both swinging strikes and soft contact. He started with Naylor.
Cole buried his knucklecurve down and in, getting Naylor to chase for strike one (something he was able to get Cleveland lefties to do all night). Then, he went to the fastball, attacking in the inside third of the plate — which just so happened to be a part of the strike zone that Naylor did not barrel at all this season.
It was a dangerous pitch, of course — if Cole misses outside, he leaves a fastball over the heart of the plate, and Naylor did have 20 homers this season; a 4-0 deficit would be the likely outcome. But he didn’t miss, and instead got him to weakly roll over to the first baseman Rizzo. While Naylor still reached — Rosario feinted the contact play, drawing the throw home and scampering back to third to load the bases — the run did not score.
Things did not get easier, however, as Guardians Wild Card hero Oscar Gonzalez came to the plate. Here, with a force at every base, Cole played for the ground ball, starting him off with a slider low, the exact sort of pitch that Gonzalez drills straight into the dirt.
Once again, it worked like a charm.
Although the Yankees were at double-play depth, third baseman Josh Donaldson was clearly concerned first and foremost with preventing that run from scoring. It may not exactly look it — when he throws home, Gonzalez is barely out of the batter’s box — but it was probably the prudent move. His sprint speed of 28.9 ft/s ranked in the 90th percentile, which would have made doubling him up difficult; cutting down the lead runner and trying for a 5-2-3 double play was the right move.
That brought up Giménez, the 2022 AL All-Star starter at second base; a dangerous hitter, the former Mets prospect slashed .282/.388/.391 since September 1st and called it a slump. Still, although he had a high average (.298) and on-base percentage (.371) on the year, there is still a book on how best to attack Giménez: pound him with fastballs (he had an xBA of .239 and xSLG of .392 against them) and avoid off-speed pitches (he had .300 xBA and .467 xSLG)
And how did Cole attack him? By foregoing the fastball almost entirely and giving him nothing but breaking balls at the bottom of the zone.
This method of attack tells me two things. The first is that Cole recognized that the Cleveland hitters were finding less success against his breaking pitches (particularly his knucklecurve) than against his fastball.
The second lesson is that Cole understood Giménez’s scouting report. The Cleveland second baseman’s high on-base percentage was driven by a high batting average and a league-leading 25 hit batsmen; he rarely walked (his 6.1 BB% was in the 21st percentile) and chased a lot of pitches out of the zone (his chase rate was in the 8th percentile). Additionally, despite a high batting average against breaking balls (.315), he tended to drive them into the ground (average launch angle of four degrees). Plainly, Cole was trying to entice Giménez to chase, knowing that if he did make contact, it would likely be a ground ball into an infield that ranked among the league’s best defensively in 2022.
Of course, it didn’t matter how good the defense was, as Cole simply did this:
It’s hard to find a better way to prevent a run from scoring than a strikeout.
This K capped off a big inning from both Cole and the Yankees defense, preventing a bad inning from spiraling out of control and changing the course of the game by stopping the Guardians’ momentum in its tracks and keeping the deficit at one run. While you never quite know what would happen if things went differently here, there’s a good chance that the Yankees would be facing a critical Game 2 down in the series if Cole couldn’t wiggle out of trouble. Many times this year, that big inning would have occurred. But when the moment counted, Cole stepped up and locked it down — because that’s what aces do.