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Gerrit Cole was so masterful under pressure Wednesday, so man-versus-boys dominant, that he allowed Yankees fans to gather themselves, take a deep breath, and exhale slowly. Their nightmare scenario remains an abrupt postseason exit — via the fickle forces of wild-card baseball — and that isn’t going to change.
But on the night of Oct. 5, if Cole is pitching that sudden-death game in The Bronx, or in Boston, or in Oakland, Yankees fans will feel as confident as humanly possible that their team will not wreck the season by ending it as a one-and-done.
At a time of grossly inflated contracts in sports, Cole is worth every penny of the nine figures in his. In the insurance business, he would be the ultimate $324 million umbrella policy, covering all emergency situations. He showed why in Anaheim while ending the Yankees’ four-game losing streak, dominating the local team from his SoCal youth, the Angels, in a 4-1 victory that felt pretty damn big.
Cole struck out 15 and allowed four hits and no walks in seven innings, extending his scoreless streak to 21 ²/₃ before surrendering a run in the sixth.
“I thought that we were unpredictable,” Cole explained of his pitch-selection success.
Actually, this performance was quite predictable. The ace managed a career-high 32 swings-and-misses to improve his record to 4-0, with 39 strikeouts and four walks in 24 ²/₃ innings, since coming off the COVID-19 list.
Spider Tack? What’s that again?
“I was putting it pretty much where I wanted to,” Cole said.
He struck out six straight Angels in the middle of the game, surrendered two consecutive no-out hits and a run, and then buckled down to get Shohei Ohtani and the next two hitters swinging to kill the threat.
He struck out Ohtani all three times he faced him, beating the game’s best player on explosive fastballs in the high-90s on the final strike of each at-bat. The day before, a reporter had asked Cole what pitch he wouldn’t throw Ohtani, and the ace responded playfully, “He does not need any more advantage. … OK, I won’t throw him a knuckleball, there you go.”
And then on his very first pitch to Ohtani, Cole threw a knuckle curve for a strike, his opening act seeming as playful as his response.
No, four bad games weren’t going to change everything. The Yankees weren’t about to panic after winning 13 in a row, and after playing dominant baseball for the better part of seven weeks.
“I do feel like we’re in a different place as a team,” Aaron Boone had said before the game, “than some of the valleys we’ve been in at different times this year.”
But still, the Yankees didn’t want this streak to get away from them, and didn’t want to miss this late-season opportunity to make a definitive statement with their ace. Cole had said he was “starting to smell October baseball around the corner,” and then spent Wednesday’s homecoming adding the sights and sounds to that smell.
It was a hell of a return trip for the man from Newport Beach. His family had Angels season tickets, so as a young Yankees fan Gerrit made his share of trips to the ballpark. Cole, the prospect, competed in some showcase events on this field, and as a visiting big leaguer he parked his truck in the same spot outside the stadium before every game in every series.
He spoke excitedly Tuesday about his mother’s appearance at batting practice, and he spoke wearily of the amount of tickets required for family and friends.
“The requests are coming from three different angles,” Cole said.
The ace had been 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA in four previous starts in Angel Stadium, but this fifth one was new-level stuff. Cole pointed to the plate after his 116th and final pitch, a slider that beat Max Stassi for strikeout No. 15. Lighting it up in front of all those familiar faces, Cole said, was “like a little cherry on top.”
The more compelling story is what Cole’s presence means for down the road. As in, that one-game wild-card shootout that the Yankees will almost certainly need to survive.
The Tampa Bay Rays are not the New York Mets. Their program is too airtight to blow a big divisional lead in the final month, meaning the Yankees will have to settle for a sudden-death game against the Red Sox or the A’s for the right to advance into the main draw.
But Cole will pitch that game. Wednesday, as Aaron Judge stood in the outfield and considered that the Yankees’ starter could have signed as a free agent with the Angels, he told himself, “Thank goodness he’s wearing the away jersey.”
If Gerrit Cole pitches sudden-death baseball in The Bronx on the night of Oct. 5, Yankees fans will be thanking their lucky stars that he isn’t wearing the away jersey.