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Smarts and Stuff Driving Gerrit Cole, the Greatest Winning Streak Since 1912

Cole pitched seven shutout innings against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium to win his 19th straight decision. Nobody has done that since Rube Marquard for the New York Giants 107 years ago.
Oct 15, 2019; Bronx, NY, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) throws a pitch during the first inning in game three of the 2019 ALCS playoff baseball series against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK – The Yankees put nine runners on base against Gerrit Cole in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, the equivalent of New York gridlock on the bases Tuesday night. None of them scored. In every instance, Cole did exactly what he did back in 2008 when the Yankees really thought he was all theirs.

Back then, the Yankees used their first-round draft pick on Cole. They were prepared to offer him more than $3 million. Cole said no, but only after giving it the same kind of analytical thought he gave to pitching out of trouble at Yankee Stadium.

Cole and his father, Mark, gathered data and created charts and graphs. They crunched the numbers of the average career earnings of a high school kid drafted in the first round as compared to a college pitcher—including post-playing career in order to factor in the value of a college education. That’s how Cole would up pitching at UCLA rather than in the Yankees’ farm system. He never even allowed the Yankees to make an offer.

“The way he navigated this game,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “is something very few pitchers can do. He worked his way through and around every high-leverage count. That was the most impressive thing about Gerrit tonight.”

Who the heck survives five walks to beat the Yankees in a postseason game at Yankee Stadium without allowing a run? Only Cole, that’s who. (Art Nehf pulled a similar trick in 1913, but that was in front of 25,410 people at the Polo Grounds, before there even was a Yankee Stadium.)

How he did it explains why Cole is on the greatest winning streak in 107 years. He survived constant trouble and unfavorable counts by deploying smarts as much as he did his four pitches. Watching him pitch was like watching David Blaine work: you see it but you’re still not sure how he did it. Cole somehow threw seven shutout innings to beat New York, 4-1, and keep the ALCS on the exact course that was evident before it began:

To go to the World Series, the Yankees must win a game started by Cole or Justin Verlander. They are 0-2 so far. The Astros need to win those games.

“Sometimes it comes and goes,” Cole said of his command, “and tonight I was able to make pitches when I needed to. And next time out I'm pretty confident I'll be better.”

This is all you need to know about the amount of intellect and secondary pitches Cole had to summon to get through this game unscathed: he threw 71 fastballs and the Yankees swung and missed at only three of them—the fewest swings and misses off the famed Cole heater in his past 53 starts, going back to June of 2018.

Cole’s four-seam fastball is one of the great weapons in baseball. It is the toughest four-seamer to hit among all MLB starters (.166), it travels the second-fastest (97.1 mph) and it spins the fourth-fastest (2,530 rpm). But as the Yankees learned Tuesday night, he also has two elite breaking pitches. His curveball (third fastest) and slider (10th fastest) give him three top 10 pitches when it comes to spin rate. That is absurd. Six of Cole’s seven strikeouts resulted from his breaking pitches.

There’s more. Cole is freakishly detailed about how he prepares, and he is Greg Maddux-like in how he can read hitters’ swings in order to make in-game adjustments. For instance, he can tell when a hitter changes the timing of when he lands on his front foot to decode whether he is sitting on velocity or breaking pitches.

He also does something I never heard before from a pitcher: he doesn’t need a target from the catcher to throw his fastball. For instance, Martin Maldonado, his catcher, can hold his glove on the outside corner, but both Maldonado and Cole will know the actual pitch will be a high heater over the plate. The target acts like a decoy. That’s how well they know how they want to pitch the hitter.

And still more in the attributes bucket: Cole is a fearless competitor, a guy whose highest average velocity occurs in the eighth inning.

Add it up and we are watching something none of us have seen before, unless you happened to be around in 1912 when Rube Marquard started 19-0. Marquard did so not only when the ball was dead, but also covered in tobacco juice, which Marquard would spit and rub into the ball to darken it.

Cole is 19-0 in his past 25 starts. He hasn’t lost a game in 146 days or 169 1/3 innings—the equivalent of a full, qualified season of undefeated baseball. This is pitching—smarts, stuff and moxie—in its highest form.

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A few years ago, a former Yankee—he wouldn’t say who—told Justin Verlander that “Our whole goal in the playoffs is to disrupt the other team, to get you out of your game.” The Yankees can do that with help from their 50,000 rabid fans. Just ask the poor Minnesota Twins, who crumbled as each of their pitchers made their maiden trips to the Yankee Stadium mound in October in the Division Series.

That is why when Verlander was asked what impressed him most about Cole in Game 5, he did not talk about a particular pitch or sequence or at-bat, but the clinical grace under pressure Cole displayed.

Verlander marveled at Cole’s “ability to quiet the noise and make a pitch … Here, in this environment, everything just piles on.”

Said catcher Martin Maldonado, answering the same question about the highlight of Cole’s game, “His ability to make a pitch when he needed to. That just shows you what kind of guy he is, that he competes every pitch.”

Cole gave no better example of combining smarts and stuff than how he extricated himself from a bases loaded jam in the first inning. Cole had just walked Gleyber Torres on four pitches—after having never issued a four-pitch, first-inning walk all year.

“Gleyber—wasn’t going to mess around there,” Cole said in great tribute to the New York second baseman.

Maldonado went out to the mound, using up a mound visit five batters into the game. Maldonado was thinking first-pitch curveball to the next batter, Didi Gregorius. The words were hardly out of his mouth when Cole said he was thinking first-pitch curveball to Gregorius.

Never mind that Cole had yet to throw a curveball in the game. He simply flipped in a curveball and Gregorius grounded out. Inning over.

Cole pitched most of the game under duress also because of the tight score. It wasn’t until the seventh inning that Houston pushed the lead from 2-0 to 4-0, when they did so with the help of Adam Ottavino and Aaron Boone for a second straight game.

Boone brought in Ottavino to face George Springer for the third straight game. The first two resulted in a 103-mph bullet to centerfield and a home run, both off sliders. When Ottavino gets to a full count on righthanded hitters, he throws his slider 67 percent of the time. But this time, having lost faith in his best pitch, he threw a fastball, and did so without conviction. He missed badly for ball four.

Boone had lefthanded groundball specialist Zack Britton warmed in the bullpen, but he let Ottavino pitch to Jose Altuve. Ottavino is very slow delivering the ball to the plate. The Astros know this. Boone should know this.

In Game 2, after Springer homered off Ottavino, Michael Brantley reached base on a third-strike wild pitch. On the very next pitch, Brantley took off for second. Altuve smacked a grounder off the glove of a diving Gregorius.

Ottavino is a green light for the Houston running game. This time, again, the Astros ran on the very first pitch. Springer took off on a straight steal, as Brantley had done, and Altuve, anticipating Ottavino would pitch him away, grounded a single through the right side as Torres left to cover second base. (It was not a hit-and-run; Altuve simply had the option of swinging with Springer running.)

The decision to leave Ottavino in with a runner on first set in motion a two-run inning. Game over. Here is something else that is insane about Cole: In his career he is 92-16 when his team scores more than two runs, including 39-3 with the Astros.

We can keep finding ways to appreciate what Cole is doing on the mound because he keeps providing them. Twenty-five consecutive starts over five months without a defeat is just crazy. This one, without his best fastball and in the New York pressure cooker, was one of his best.

“This game was in the top two or three games I’ve seen him pitch,” Houston third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I saw him pitch a game last year in Arizona. He punched out like 15 guys. Now in his postseason starts he is staying on the same run he was on in the regular season.

“He hasn’t skipped a beat. He is terrific every start. It’s just domination.”