The Yankees have been an October mainstay in the lives of their fans going back a quarter century. Despite not winning a World Series since 2009 (although there is still hope for the current crop of Bronx Bombers), New York has played a ton of playoff baseball in the last decade. It should be no surprise that a lot of those games have been win-or-go-home. Elimination. Do-or-die. Now-or-never. Pick your favorite phrasing.
One way to set yourself up for success in the face of that pressure and adversity is to have your starting pitcher absolutely shove. And while the past 10 years features its share of stinkers from the man on mound to start some of those games, a select group of Yankees have come through when the club really needed them to. On Sunday night, Gerrit Cole (re)joined that list. So without further ado, let’s see who succeeded in the biggest moments for the Yankees in the past ten years
2012 ALDS Game 5: CC Sabathia
This is not the only elimination game Sabathia started for the Yankees since 2012, but it is by far the most successful. The big lefty did not have nearly as much success a week after this in the ALCS. He also started three other elimination games in his post-ace rebuild: two in 2017 and one in 2018. But this one, at Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles, is his undisputed masterpiece.
Andrew touched on this game earlier today in his Yankees history of Game 5s, and holy cow, CC gave a capital-A Ace performance in this one. Sabathia went the distance, throwing 121 pitches — the most of any starter on this elimination game list. He did not allow a hit until the fourth inning, the Orioles managed only one lone run in the eighth, and Sabathia closed out the ninth by retiring the side on 10 pitches. When it’s win-or-go-home, a complete game tour de force from your ace certainly helps.
2017 ALDS Games 3 and 4: Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino
After Cleveland took a two-games-to-none ALDS lead on the Yankees, who survived the Wild Card Game against the Minnesota Twins despite an unmitigated disaster start from Sevy (three earned runs in 0.1 inning), he and Tanaka stiffened their spines. Their performances sent the series to its definitive Game 5.
Tanaka was first up. Back in the Bronx after losing the first two sets in Ohio, the right-hander dominated the Cleveland lineup. Tanaka kept the bases clear until a Jason Kipnis triple in the fourth. Masa promptly retaliated by striking out José Ramírez and Jay Bruce, stranding the run and keeping the game scoreless. There it remained, inning after inning, as Tanaka stymied the Cleveland lineup.
When Tanaka left the mound after throwing his 92nd pitch of the night, it capped seven innings of shutout ball. Greg Bird promptly hit a towering, dramatic home run off former Yankee Andrew Miller in the bottom half of the frame, and the Yankees won 1-0, sending the series to a fourth game.
Game 4 was Sevy Bump Day in the Bronx as the young righty tried to hold serve and get the Yankees back to Cleveland for Game 5. And while he was not as dominant as his rotationmate the night before, he nonetheless came through for New York. Aided by shoddy defense behind opposing starter Trevor Bauer, the Yankees put a four-spot on Cleveland in the bottom of the second and Sevy made it hold up. Like Tanaka before him, he recorded 21 outs for his club, throwing 113 pitches, striking out 9, and sending the ALDS back to Cleveland for its finale.
2019 ALCS Game 5: James Paxton
The 2019 ALCS represented the second time in three years that New York faced Houston with a trip to the Fall Classic at stake, after the Yankees fell to the Astros in 2017. Two years later, the Bombers stared a 3-1 series deficit in the face. Tasked with taking the ball in the Bronx and extending the season was the Canadian lefty known as Big Maple.
Paxton’s outing started in inauspicious fashion, with the southpaw uncorking a run-scoring wild pitch in the first that put New York in an early 1-0 hole. But that was all the Canuck gave up to Houston on the night. Outdueling future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander, who allowed four runs in the bottom of the first, Paxton spun six innings of one-run ball. He left the game having thrown 112 pitches, striking out nine, keeping the Yankee lead intact, and sending this series to it infamous conclusion. Nonetheless, it stands as Paxton’s greatest moment in pinstripes.
2022 ALDS Game 4: Gerrit Cole
Honestly, this should be the second time I put Cole on this list, as he delivered a fine one-run outing over 5.1 innings against the Rays in the 2020 ALDS, but I don’t want to talk about a game the Yankees lost. Sue me.
I’d rather look at Cole’s performance on Sunday night. Unlike the other games on this list, Cole’s Game 4 start happened in hostile territory on the road in Cleveland. A bad, or even mediocre, start here from No. 45 would have been devastating. The $300 million man was on the hill with the season at stake — a season that at one point featured a Yankee team that looked like it would legitimately challenge the franchise record for wins in a season. If Cole had failed to stand tall …
But stand tall he did. He tossed seven innings of two-run ball with eight strikeouts. Cole looked like he would rather die than fail to make it through the seventh as well, punctuating his outing with strikeouts of Gabriel Arias and Will Brennan, the latter on a 98-mph heater (his 110th pitch of the night). Cole emptied the tank, and in so doing sent the ALDS back to New York, giving the Yankees one last chance to extend their season and set up a date with their nemesis, the Houston Astros.
It should be no surprise that the arms who have come up the biggest for the Yankees when the chips are down have been their aces, or at the worst, their top-of-the-rotation arms. It’s hard to definitively rank which start belongs above which. It is really difficult to argue against a complete game from your ace. And while Tanaka’s seven shutout innings against Cleveland were a masterpiece and the excitement around the 2017 team was palpable, expectations were perhaps not as high as in other seasons.
For my money, considering the individual expectations on Cole and the outsized expectations the fanbase once had for this 2022 Yankees club, it’s hard not to have the ace’s start Sunday night anywhere other than near the very top of the list when we think about desperately-needed pitching performances.