Entering Game 4 of this ALDS, there was but one truly realistic path forward for the Yankees. Sure, it was technically possible that the offense would explode after a quiet start to the playoffs, but given the lineup’s inconsistencies, it was wise not to rely on an outburst. No, in order for the Yankees to finesse winning Game 4 and leaving enough left in the tank to navigate a potential Game 5, they needed Gerrit Cole to shove last night.
Gerrit Cole shoved last night.
The Yankees’ season is still alive, and it’s thanks almost entirely to the efforts of their ace. Five days after he propelled the team to a win in Game 1 over the Guardians, Cole again put the Yankees on his back, providing seven stellar, gutsy innings. It was exactly what the Yankees needed, nothing more and nothing less, and so they fight on for at least one more day.
Cole’s second start in these playoffs actually bore countless similarities to his first. In broad strokes, his line in the first outing (six innings, four hits, one run, one walk, eight strikeouts), aligns itself with his second (seven innings, six hits, two runs, one walk, seven strikeouts). Each start was really only marred by one bad mistake, with Steven Kwan turning on a fastball over the plate for a solo homer in Game 1, and Josh Naylor also lining a fastball over the middle for a solo home run in Game 4.
But the parallels run much deeper than the topline figures. Much like his outing last Tuesday, Cole decided to attack the Guardians with his knuckle-curve, altering his pitch diet from the regular season. In Game 1, Cole threw 26 curves, more than any other outing in 2022, and in Game 4, he threw 28 more.
Cole has nearly embraced pitching backwards against Cleveland. Almost exactly half of his pitches in both starts have been either curveballs or sliders. Toss in a handful of changeups, and fastballs have made up less than half of Cole’s pitches in October.
The strategy has worked. Cole was able to keep Cleveland both off balance and overpowered on Sunday night, generating easy strikes with his secondaries while also rearing back and blowing the heater by them.
The key was Cole’s ability to locate his fastball up and on the edges of the zone, while burying his breakers at opposing hitters knees. Cole’s command wasn’t perfect, hanging a couple of curves, one of which Andrés Giménez connected with for a single, but he was mostly able to keep his breakers darting beneath the zone:
He was able to produce a chunk of awkward Cleveland swings against his secondaries:
Gerrit Cole's 2 1st Inning Ks. pic.twitter.com/XXcVGzsOhK— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 16, 2022
When the chips were down though, Cole went back to the fastball. The Yankee season seemed to hang in the balance in the seventh, clinging to a 4-2 lead, with a runner on second and one down. With the count 2-2, Cole pumped a 98 mph fastball that Gabriel Arias took for backwards K. Then, facing pinch-hitter Will Brennan, Cole threw three straight fastballs. Brennan swung through all three, with the last one generating as much emotion from Cole as he’s shown as a Yankee:
It was the kind of start that lends itself to all the clichés. Cole had everything working tonight. He did what an ace is supposed to do. He earned his pinstripes, had his True Yankee Moment.
It’s also the kind of start that can, if it’s possible, rekindle some faith in the project that is the New York Yankees. For a club that at times sticks too steadfastly to The Plan, what Cole and the Yankees have done in Games 1 and 4 offers one example of how elite players and smart coaching can come together to achieve greatness. Cole fought through an odd 2022 that saw him suffer a number of mystifying starts, watching fastball after fastball get taken over the fence. In October, Cole and the Yankees appear to have acknowledged that they had to tweak The Plan; Cole has significantly changed his approach versus the Guardians and it’s paid off with a pair of excellent, clutch starts. This, a $324-million man working with a staff that’s supposed to be world class in order to deliver and execute when it matters most, is what The Yankees are supposed to be.
Cole departed after seven, pretty much the precise number of innings he had to cover in order to help the battered Yankee bullpen hold up. Clay Holmes handled the eighth, in a way that was less than comforting than his line of one inning and one walk would indicate:
getting word that variety is not the spice of life pic.twitter.com/USRvkpOd7H— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) October 17, 2022
Holmes still does not appear to entirely know where his pitches are going, but good thing is, neither do the Guardians. He seems able to throw enough strikes to survive at least short stints, and he did get the ball to the ninth. There, Wandy Peralta pitched a stressfree, 1-2-3 ninth to ensure Yankee Stadium would see one more game this season.
This was Peralta’s third straight appearance, meaning it’s fair to wonder how much he can contribute in tonight’s Game 5. But Cole’s excellence meant that Lou Trivino, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Clarke Schmidt were spared ahead of what will surely be an all hands on deck contest. Last night’s game showed that the Yankees bullpen can do the job when it’s not asked to do too much, but the story will be different tonight.
The stage is set now, and all that’s left is to find out if tonight’s chapter of the story ends in agony or ecstasy. We could be two days from Yankees-Astros, Round III, an epic rematch and a chance for the Yankees to exorcise their playoff demons. We also might be hours away from the premature beginning of a long, cold winter. We have the Yankee ace to thank for getting us even this far.