Gerrit Cole’s kind of in a no-win situation. It’s tough to say that about a guy who cashes $36 million dollar checks. He had a 2022 regular season that was disappointing at best — projected to be the best starter in the AL at the beginning of the year, he ended the season not even the best starter on his team.
Cole’s season got so off the rails that there was a real debate among fans that Nestor Cortes should be the #1 pitcher come playoff time, getting Game 1 of the ALDS. The Yankees stuck to their guns though, and Cole was arguably the MVP of the divisional round. He won both his starts, with a 2.03 ERA and striking out 30 percent of the batters he faced, a tough task against a team as contact-oriented as the Guardians.
Now, the Yankees need him to be the stopper, the one that can help right this ship as it lists toward a possible ALCS exit. We judge players by how they perform in October, fairly or not, and there were more than a few fans and media members who said they’d forget about his inconsistent regular season as long as he showed up in the postseason. He’s done that so far, and gets another chance to wipe clean his regular season record tonight, at home, trying to get the Yankees back in this series.
Except it might not really matter what Gerrit Cole does.
The problem in this series hasn’t really been the pitching. On Thursday night, Luis Severino got into a little bit of trouble, but made just one real mistake, the ball that Alex Bregman hit out to the Crawford Boxes. The two Astros starters in this series, Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, have combined to strike out 20 batters in their outings. The Yankees are down 0-2 in the ALCS because they can not find ways to score.
Good hitting can bail out bad pitching — Cole himself has been the recipient of that this year. The Yankees actually won his infamous, five-home-run-allowed start against the Twins back in June, and after he allowed a backbreaking three-run shot to Alex Verdugo at Fenway, the Yankees came back and won that game as well. If you can hit, you can claw your way out of a hole that your starter may put you in.
It doesn’t quite work the same way with good pitching though. Baseball history is full of talented chuckers who shoved every four or five days on a bad team, only to lose 2-1 or 1-0. This is the challenge that Cole faces today, and why the way we think about his season could end up as a collective shrug. If he blows up against the Astros, it will likely be the last black mark on his 2022, but if he pitches like he did against the Guardians, and this lackluster offense continues, he likely gets lost in the (rightful) furor over the shut-down lineup.
I think that Cole thrives on, even craves, starts like tonight. He’s the man, these kind of games are exactly why he was signed to that $324 million contract. Barring a perfecto, though, he’s still relying on his team to hit, to score any runs at all. In the start that may end up defining his season, he may end up a footnote in the story of the 2022 campaign.