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Gerrit Cole’s knuckle-curve stifled Cleveland in Game 1, just like in 2020

Gerrit Cole’s knuckle-curve was his best pitch in Game 1, and it wasn’t the first time he beat Cleveland in that manner.

MLB: Wild Card-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole hasn’t really been the same pitcher with the Yankees that he was with the Astros, especially toward the end of his Houston tenure. The ace of the Yanks staff has been a reliable force at the top of the rotation, and in many ways delivered the stability that Brian Cashman looked for while recruiting him.

Yet the high-end production still has room to grow, especially looking at the postseason. Cole signed on with the Yankees coming off a 2019 run that saw him toss seven or more innings in five separate playoff starts for the Astros with four masterful ones, including seven scoreless frames against the Yanks in that ALCS. So far in pinstripes, the memory that sticks out for most is the infamous Wild Card Game of last season, in which the former No. 1 overall pick struggled mightily against the Red Sox on a bad hamstring, covering only six outs and allowing three runs on six base-runners.

However, it hasn’t been all bad by any stretch. And in today’s win-or-go-home Game 4 of the ALDS, Gerrit Cole will return to the place where his postseason career with the Yankees began back in 2020, in unusual circumstances that involved that COVID-altered season.

Cole went toe-to-toe with at the time the most dominant pitcher in the world, the clear-cut winner of the AL Cy Young in 2020, Shane Bieber. And while that game is most remembered by the complete thrashing of Bieber by the Yankees’ offense, Cole’s superb outing must not be overlooked.

The Yankees’ ace delivered seven innings, allowing only a pair of runs on six hits, while walking none, and striking out 13 hitters (second-highest mark of his postseason career). That game ended up 12-3, and that performance wound up being a lot more than what the offense needed, but in baseball, you can never take anything for granted.

In that outing, Cole found success using his knuckle-curve as his primary secondary pitch. “Primary secondary” is an odd term, but Cole will always pitch off his four-seam fastball, and the curve was used 25 times that day, earning 5 whiffs on 10 swings, and another five called strikes. The slider took a back seat, only being used 16 percent of the time but was also effective with another five whiffs, and the four-seamer was in peak form with 12 swings and misses on that game.

Although it was only a couple of years ago, that Cleveland lineup has had a lot of turnover since, with only José Ramirez and Josh Naylor remaining from that team that got knocked out in two games by the Yankees. Interestingly enough, it was Josh Naylor who hurt Cole with the long ball, hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning.

The lineups may have been different from then and now, but Cole found a lot of success on Tueday with — you guessed it — the knuckle-curve.

Steven Kwan turned on a poorly located heater to go deep off Cole, but when he was throwing that knuckle-curve, Guardians bats were simply baffled with a 73-percent whiff rate on the pitch, frankly a comical number. The slider was also used more heavily used than in 2020, which meant Cole threw fewer fastballs, only tossing heaters on 46 percent of the time.

Cole historically has had a lot of success with his knuckle-curve against Cleveland, and lately (looking at his last start), it’s worked beautifully. There really isn’t much reason to go away from it in the game plan for Game 4, and the pressure will be on Cole to save the season, hopefully sending this series back to the Bronx.