Yankees Turn to Gerrit Cole to Save Their Season

Nobody needed to tell Gerrit Cole he was getting the ball in Game 5 of the ALDS. He has to do something he has never attempted across his 216 starts: pitch on short rest.
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The conversation lasted barely longer than a breath. Yankees manager Aaron Boone had just climbed off the bus to Petco Park for Game 4 of the American League Division Series and was settling into his office when his ace, Gerrit Cole, strode by.

“Hey,” Boone began.

“Give me the ball,” said Cole.

Both men say that although they pictured it separately, this was the first time they discussed the possibility that Cole might start Thursday’s Game 5 on short rest. “Nobody needed to tell me that,” Cole said.

Nobody needed to tell the rest of the Yankees, either.

“That’s why we gave him all that money,” said first baseman Luke Voit, after New York beat the Rays 5–1 to force a deciding, winner-take-all Game 5.

In December, when the Yankees signed Cole to the largest contract for a pitcher in history—nine years, $324 million—this was exactly the scenario they imagined. (Well, perhaps they did not imagine that Cole’s win-or-go-home start would come at an empty neutral ballpark in the second round of expanded playoffs after a pandemic-shortened regular season.)

Oct 5, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning in game one of the 2020 ALDS at Petco Park.

He had been imagining it for even longer, as a pre-teen who raced home from school in Southern California to catch Yankees games on TV by the time they started at 4 p.m. Pacific. His father, Mark, spent some of his childhood in Syracuse, N.Y., and he had passed down his love for the Yankees to his son, who adored Lou Gehrig and Mariano Rivera but modeled himself after Roger Clemens. At 11, Gerrit attended Game 6 of the 2001 World Series in Phoenix, where a photographer from The Star-Ledger caught him holding a sign that read YANKEE FAN TODAY TOMORROW FOREVER.

His boyhood team drafted him in the first round in 2008, but he decided to go to UCLA. New York GM Brian Cashman tried to grab him from the Pirates before the ’18 season, but Pittsburgh dealt him to the Astros instead. When Cole reached free agency 11 months ago, Cashman took another shot at the man he called his “white whale.”

The GM insisted after his team lost to Houston in the American League Championship Series last year that his pitching model—a thin rotation bolstered by an elite bullpen—was World Series–caliber. His actions told a different story.

Cashman sent Cole a foot-tall gold box shaped like home plate, which opens to reveal a model of Yankee Stadium and an iPad loaded with information on the team. He brought Andy Pettitte, Cole's childhood favorite player, to one of their meetings. Cashman picked the brain of visiting clubhouse manager Lou Cucuzza, who remembered that Cole had once shown him a photo of his anniversary dinner with wife Amy, in which a bottle of 2004 Masseto had been visible in the frame. Cashman sent the Coles a bottle of the ’04—and, for good measure, a bottle of the ’05.

That—plus the paychecks—sold Cole. “I’m here,” he said at his introductory press conference. “I’ve always been here.”

Now here is Petco Park, with a chance to send the Yankees to the American League Championship Series, where they would face the Astros, the team whose 2017 cheating scheme may have cost them a chance at a title. To get them there, Cole will have to do something he has never attempted across his 216 starts: pitch on short rest.

He said that he had spoken to pitchers who have done it and determined that with some minimal tweaks to his routine—he skipped a side session this week—he should be able to handle the workload. Cole said that he often feels recovered enough to start after three days, anyway.

“When the lights turn on, it doesn't matter if it's three, four, five, six, seven days,” he said. “You got to do your job.”

Given the shorter regular season and the adrenaline he will feel, he has a good chance to perform at or close to his normal level, which was a 2.84 ERA and 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings this year. Many pitchers report that the issue is not the start on short rest; it’s the start after that. For Cole, that would line up to be Wednesday’s ALCS Game 4. The Yankees will worry about that if they get that far.

In the meantime, they will turn to the man they most trust in this situation. As he usually does, Cole spent most of the game standing in the corner of the dugout with Boone, talking his ear off about the action before them. By the final out of the game, though, Cole stood alone, watching through his surgical mask as his team rendered his services officially necessary. As the Yankees celebrated, the skipper and the ace engaged in one more brief conversation.

Boone said, “You’re going tomorrow.”

Cole said, “O.K.”