When Gerrit Cole agreed to his mammoth contract this offseason to play for his childhood team, the countdown to his regular-season debut in a Yankees uniform began in earnest. Opening Day at the time was scheduled for March 26 in Baltimore.
Just over four months later, the right-hander finally took the mound at Camden Yards. Beyond a slew of unprecedented circumstances, his performance went just as his coaches, teammates and fans would have expected: he pitched like an ace.
Cole remained undefeated on the season in the Yankees' road grays, tossing 6 2/3 innings of three-run ball with seven strikeouts in a blowout victory over the Orioles. Dating back to last season with the Houston Astros, Cole hasn't lost a regular-season start since May.
"I thought it was a big step forward," Cole said. "I liked everything relative to the last start and so steady improvement was good."
Don't let a few minor blemishes distract you from just how dominant Cole was on Wednesday night. At one point, the Yankees' right-hander had retired 14 consecutive batters and 19 out of 20. From the final out of the first inning through the bottom of the seventh frame, only one batter reached base.
"I just thought he got really in tune with his delivery and on a really good page and rhythm with Gary and I just thought he started really executing his pitches really well," manager Aaron Boone explained. "I felt like he really started throwing where and how he wanted to, especially in those middle innings."
For the second-consecutive start, Cole took the mound in the bottom of the first frame with an early lead. As was the case in Washington D.C. on Opening Day — a complete game in a rain-shortened win — Cole proceeded to give up a run in the bottom of the first half. Baltimore cut a two-run deficit in half on an RBI double from veteran shortstop Jose Iglesias.
After getting out of the first inning, Cole stormed back into the Yankees' dugout, visibly frustrated about the earned run — and leadoff walk that started the threat. The ace settled in from there, tossing 6 1/3 hitless innings before he surrendered extra base hits on three-consecutive pitches in the seventh.
"I think I just kind of got into the rhythm," he said, praising Sánchez for his efforts and communication behind the plate. "I only was really upset with the one pitch to Iglesias and I just felt that I could have challenged the leadoff hitter a little more over the plate, but by and large we executed a lot of those pitches in the first. And then as we started to roll, there was some unpredictability there I thought. Match that with executing more pitches than not and it flowed a little bit."
As he eclipsed the 100-pitch mark in the seventh, Cole surrendered three sharp hits in a row, including a two-run blast from designated hitter Dwight Smith Jr. Boone was forced to pull the plug despite planning to have the right-hander finish out the inning.
One possible reason for tripping up at the end of his start, per Boone, could have been fatigue. He threw 102 pitches in his second outing — 27 more than he threw in his Yankee debut.
"Especially as the game wore on, I thought he got really comfortable," Boone said. "It happened pretty quick there. He gets two quick outs, and then it's four pitches later so I don't know. First time up over 100 [pitches]. There might be something there but I thought, by and large, he threw the ball really, really well."
Three runs aside, rookie right-hander Brooks Kriske, who made his MLB debut in relief of Cole, called the ace "the best pitcher on the planet."
Slugger Aaron Judge, who stroked his first home run of the season on Wednesday, called Cole "automatic." He said it doesn't matter where Cole is in the count, he has a game plan for every hitter and always finds a way to execute. Wednesday was no different.
"It's impressive to watch and fun to watch as a guy on defense," Judge explained. "He usually makes your job pretty easy not really fielding too many balls. It's usually in the catcher's mitt and right back to Cole. So, it's fun to watch him go out there and do his thing again tonight."
The victory helped New York extend it's modest winning streak to two games after a two-day layoff due to postponements in Philadelphia after the Marlins' COVID-19 outbreak. Cole's individual active winning streak is just a little bit longer.
The right-hander extended his career-long winning streak to 18 victories over his last 24 regular season starts. That's the sixth-longest winning streak in Major League Baseball history and the longest since Jake Arrieta, who won 20 games in a row from 2015 to 2016.
Asked if he can surpass Arrieta's mark and continue striding toward the all-time record, Cole laughed.
"I don't know, we'll see!" he said. "We gotta win 19 before we win 20 I guess, right? So just try to bounce back and take it one game at a time."
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