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LOS ANGELES — For Gerrit Cole, the road to 2,000 strikeouts spanned pitching for three different teams, throwing to 17 different catchers and punching out 660 different batters.
And while hitting the milestone last week allowed Cole to reflect on his first 2,000, he also made it clear he aspires for more — and not just joining the exclusive 3,000-strikeout club.
“I feel pretty proud of it, but I’m not necessarily satisfied with where it is,” Cole said this week in the visiting dugout at T-Mobile Park in Seattle.
“I hope to get to 4,000,” he later added.
Eighty-seven men have reached 2,000 career strikeouts. Only 19 have hit 3,000. And just four — Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Steve Carlton — have surpassed 4,000.
“It starts to narrow down,” said Cole, who enters Saturday’s start against the Dodgers with 2,009 strikeouts in 1,723⅔ career innings. “There’s weight to it. There’s significance to it.
“The first thing is … I can’t take credit. It’s not everything, right? I think I saw my innings pitched are around 1,700. Double that is [3,400]. Triple that is [5,100]. So 2,000 of the 5,000-something outs I’ve recorded have been via the strikeout.
“I’m in the business of collecting outs. I think it’s a big number, I think it’s really cool, but I’m not satisfied with where it’s at. But I’m appreciative and thankful, knowing that I’m very blessed to say that I’ve been surrounded with a lot of people that have helped contribute to that.”
Before thinking about the road ahead, Cole wanted to flash back to the journey he took to get here.
So we asked if he knew which catcher had caught the most strikeouts of his — spoiler alert, it’s Kyle Higashioka (329), who recently passed Chris Stewart (316) — and Cole was not sure. But he wanted to try to name all 17 catchers who had caught him.
“Russell Martin, Michael McKenry, Chris Stewart, Elias Diaz, Francisco Cervelli,” Cole begins, quickly running through most of the Pirates delegation.
“Brian McCann, Max Stassi, Martin Maldonado, Robinson Chirinos,” he continued, checking off almost all of the Astros batterymates.
“Jose Trevino, Kyle Higashioka, Gary Sanchez,” Cole said, before pausing to think if any other Yankee had caught him.
They had not, but Cole was still missing five names who had combined to catch him for parts of 13 games. So we offered a lifeline.
There was Eric Fryer, who caught 10⅔ innings from Cole, most of them across eight shutout innings against the Cubs on May 15, 2016, during which Cole struck out seven.
“Fryer, Eric Fryer!” Cole said, his voice raising.
There were two more Pirates who caught him during his rookie year in 2013 — fellow rookie Tony Sanchez and veteran John Buck, who caught one single game of Cole’s.
“John Buck!” he said.
The other two were Astros: Tim Federowicz and then-rookie Garrett Stubbs in 2019.
“That’s pretty cool. Thank you,” Cole said, who seemed to genuinely enjoy and appreciate running through the list. “I was thinking about it a long time. I remember all those games.”
OK, so back to the strikeouts. Cole, of course, still vividly remembers the first, especially because it came against the first batter he faced in his MLB debut on June 11, 2013.
“Gregor Blanco,” he said. “Three fastballs, right down the middle.”
Oddly enough, Cole had as many strikeouts in his debut as he did RBIs (against Tim Lincecum): two.
“I got Buster Posey that day, too, on a curveball I think.”
Cole needed some help remembering his 1,000th strikeout, which came on Sept. 21, 2018, but as soon as he heard it was a curveball to the Angels’ Kaleb Cowart, he remembered the pitch.
“Curveball looking — high, away curveball,” he said.
No. 2,000 came on May 24, when Cole got the Orioles’ Jorge Mateo to whiff on a 97-mph fastball.
Though Cole tabbed the strikeout of Blanco as his favorite, he also pointed to punching out Matt Holliday in Game 2 of the 2013 NLDS, his postseason debut, as one that allowed him to settle in on the big stage.
Later, he brought up another, when he struck out Shin-Soo Choo on a changeup for his 300th strikeout of the 2019 season
“That was a good one,” he said.
Higashioka, pitching coach Matt Blake and manager Aaron Boone, meanwhile, each had the same favorite strikeout.
It was when Cole blew three straight fastballs (at 98, 99 and 99 mph) past Yordan Alvarez on his 127th, 128th and 129th pitches to complete a dominant shutout of the Astros on July 10, 2021.
“I probably got lucky there, getting three of them by him,” Cole said. “But my stubborn ass would do that. Sounds about right.”
Boone memorably visited the mound with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on first base, but Cole talked his way into finishing the game in what was his first start back in Houston as a Yankee. The strikeout of Alvarez was Cole’s 12th of the game, with his career-high 129 pitches and gutsy outing coming in the aftermath of MLB beginning to crack down on sticky substances.
“That one really stands out because of where he was at, the tone of the season, going back to Houston, to finish a dominant outing with three fastballs, which is what’s been his bread and butter, against one of the premier hitters in the league,” Blake said. “That’s a pretty signature strikeout.”
Cole’s 17 strikeouts against Joey Gallo (in 27 plate appearances) and J.D. Martinez (in 45 plate appearances) are the most against any hitter. Mookie Betts has the most plate appearances versus Cole without striking out, though Cole will get a chance to fix that this weekend.
Asked about the toughest hitters to strike out, Cole took a long pause before landing on a former NL Central foe.
“Joey Votto is such a test for me,” he said, surprised to find out a day later that he has actually held Votto to a .185 average and .565 OPS with 10 strikeouts and seven walks across 35 plate appearances.
“I mean, I remember being beat down by him so much early in my career that I just started throwing fastballs right down the middle,” he added. “Because he was just going to run me for like 12 pitches every time. What an incredible skill.”
Matt Carpenter and Anthony Rizzo, both future teammates of Cole’s, also gave him plenty of tough at-bats, he said, as did Mike Trout during his time in the AL West.
If Cole is going to reach 3,000, and make a run at 4,000, there will be plenty more battles ahead.
But it’s a challenge he is eager to attack after becoming the third-fastest pitcher to reach 2,000 strikeouts in terms of innings — his 1,714⅔ innings trail only Chris Sale (1,626) and Pedro Martinez (1,711⅓).
Cole is pitching in an era in which the 3,000-strikeout mark figures to be harder to attain, with teams being increasingly cautious about workload restrictions for young pitchers. But he takes pride in being able to pitch every fifth day for the Yankees, and if that trend continues, he will give himself a shot.
“Certainly, you have to go out there and keep taking the ball if you want an opportunity to get it done,” Cole said. “There’s a lot of longevity with the guys that have had 2,000 strikeouts. You’ve either seen some guys who’ve been relatively dynamic for a short amount of time, and then you’ve seen guys that maybe their K per nine isn’t necessarily over nine, but they pitch for a really, really long time. So the common theme is there’s just a lot of really, really good pitchers in that group.
“Going forward, it’s harder to get innings. That’s the common theme between everybody that has the next couple levels — you gotta pitch for a long time.”
Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander are the only active members of the 3,000-strikeout club. The active pitchers closing in on the milestone are Zack Greinke (2,929) and Clayton Kershaw (2,882). But after them, Cole could be next.
The 32-year-old’s Yankees contract runs through 2028. He is currently on pace to finish this season with around 217 strikeouts. If he remains healthy, that would put him at 2,147. A lot of things would have to continue to go right for Cole, but theoretically, 3,000 could be in play near the end of 2026 or the beginning of 2027.
“That definitely takes a lot of longevity and staying at the top of your game for a long time,” Higashioka said. “But I think he’s the type of pitcher that can do it.”
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Cole did not pitch during the Yankees’ three-game series in Seattle, but he and Higashioka still put on a show.
Inside the visiting clubhouse at T-Mobile Park sat a red electric guitar, signed by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and connected to an amp. Before Wednesday’s series finale, Cole picked up the guitar and started playing a few chords of “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty.
Right on cue, Higashioka walked by, but not without Cole stopping him to ask the team’s best guitarist to take a spin on it.
Higashioka obliged, taking off his batting gloves and beginning a rousing rendition of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica.
No, Mariano Rivera did not instantly come walking through the clubhouse door, but it was an impressive talent show nonetheless.