On July 10th of last season, the Yankees entered action in fourth place in the AL East, nine games behind the Boston Red Sox. As if being behind three teams within the division wasn’t an unpleasant enough outlook, there were also three teams ahead of them in the chase for the second Wild Card spot. That may be a tenable position for some teams, but not for the team that entered the season as an almost unanimous pick to represent the AL in the World Series, as the Yankees had been.
To make matters even gloomier, the Yanks would need to right the ship against the AL West-leading Astros, who were on a 99-win pace, with the former Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke on the hill for them. To further the intrigue, the Yankees would be sending their ace Gerrit Cole to the mound, who as you likely know, spent some memorable seasons in Houston. (You might also remember that the Astros and the Yankees have carried a touch of bad blood between them over the past few years.)
The stage was set for as much drama as a midseason tilt could have. Fortunately for Yankees fans, as is often the case, the stories that start with the most drama also have the most gratifying endings.
Date of Game: July 10, 2021
Final Score: Yankees 1, Astros 0
Game MVP: Gerrit Cole
There is never a case in which sending Gerrit Cole to the mound for your team is a bad thing, but some considerably large question marks followed the Yankees’ ace to the mound that day. A few weeks prior, MLB began instituting its crackdown on the usage of “sticky stuff” by pitchers, and Cole was under a pretty big microscope. He certainly didn’t assuage anyone’s concerns when he got knocked around by the Red Sox on June 27th to the tune of eight hits and five earned runs over five innings. Then on July 4th, in a memorable team-wide meltdown, Cole helped blow a 4-1 lead to the Mets, yielding six hits and four earned runs without making it out of the fourth inning.
In an almost Dickensian twist, Cole also suffered from an undisclosed illness that required him to be connected to an IV only 36 hours prior to the game. Cole would later say “You don’t want to know what I was going through. It was gross. Leave it at that.” Regardless of information we didn’t need or want to know, we did know that Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone was unsure if Cole would even make the start that Saturday evening.
Cole not only started, but he started in a big way, retiring the first nine Astros in order, striking out four. He and the Yanks took a 1-0 lead into the fourth thanks to an Aaron Judge home run – a home run on which Judge chose to add to the drama by holding the buttons of his jersey together as he rounded third base, in a not so subtle dig at Houston’s Jose Altuve. Of course, we all know that as much shade as we collectively cast in Altuve’s direction, he has a rather annoying habit of not going away.
Altuve reminded us of this as he led off the Astros' fourth by working a full-count walk off of Cole, representing the first Astro to reach base. Michael Brantley followed with a walk of his own, putting runners at first and second base with no out. The trouble, it would turn out, lasted about as long as it took for Judge’s home run to clear the fence as Cole struck out Yuli Gurriel, then induced an inning-ending double play from Yordan Álvarez to quickly end the inning.
There would be no more tension with Cole on the mound over the next four innings, as he made a scary Astros lineup look anything but. From the fifth through the eighth inning, the Yanks “Top Gun” allowed only two singles – one a groundball, one a bloop into shallow center – while striking out five and walking none. The only problem was that other than Judge’s solo shot, the Yankees couldn’t score any more runs against Greinke and three Houston relievers. As a result, Cole would take the mound in the bottom of the ninth with no room for error, against the top of the Houston lineup.
Despite the domination, Cole had thrown 112 pitches to that point and as we know, wasn’t 100 percent healthy. With Aroldis Chapman warming up in the bullpen, Aaron Boone certainly had to have felt pangs of doubt as he watched Altuve lead off the bottom of the ninth with a single, putting the tying run on base with no out. Fortunately, Cole induced a fly out from Brantley and struck out Gurriel, but he had to throw 13 combined pitches to get them, bringing his pitch total to 126 on the day.
With left-handed slugger Álvarez coming to the plate – he of the .303/.371/.544 slash line at the time – and Chapman waiting for the call, Boone went to the mound, leading everyone to believe that we’d soon be giving Cole an ovation from our living rooms while we moved to the edge of our seats to watch Chapman vs. Álvarez with the game on the line.
Except that’s not how the story was going to end according to Cole, and he not so gently informed his manager of such when Boone reached the mound. “I said the f-word a lot and I kind of just blacked out,” Cole would later say, “I don’t really remember what I told him, to be honest.” With the backdrop of his team in desperate need of a spark, facing his former team, and now bitter rivals, Cole demanded he be the one to finish what had been a masterpiece to this point.
For a pitcher with a varied arsenal and a thinking man’s approach to pitching, Cole immediately dispensed with the subtle tactics. He started Álvarez off with gas up and away at 98 mph that Álvarez couldn’t catch up to, fouling it off for strike one. The next one came in up and in at 99 mph, and Álvarez had even less of a chance, swinging through it for strike two. Needing one more strike to finish off the gem, Cole went up and away again at 99 mph. When Álvarez swung through it for strike three, Cole pumped his fist and sent Yankee Universe into a frenzy along with him.
When it was over, Cole had thrown a career-high 129 pitches, struck out 12, and allowed only three hits and two walks against one of the best lineups in baseball. His game score of 91 has only been exceeded twice by a Yankees pitcher in the past 14 years (Masahiro Tanaka and Corey Kluber) and was so dominant he even impressed Houston manager Dusty Baker, who as we know has seen a few things in baseball.
“That was like Tom Seaver,” Baker said after the game. “At the end, he ditched the rest of his pitches and relied on his fastball, the high fastball.”
Gerrit Cole has pitched some great games for the Yankees and he very likely will pitch many more in pinstripes before his career ends. Yet when we consider the soap opera that is the Yankees and Astros rivalry, and Cole’s circumstances leading up to this game, this will absolutely go down as one of the most memorable, for the right reasons.