The story of the Yankees' regular season was inconsistent production. Across all facets of the game, up and down the roster, New York flip-flopped from hot and cold streaks all the way into October.
On the eve of Game 1 of the American League Division Series, however, first baseman Luke Voit acknowledged one "lock" for what to expect on Monday night.
"We paid him to pitch in October," Voit said of New York's ace Gerrit Cole. "We need him to go out there and ... do what he does best. He's got so much experience with that so we expect him to do well tomorrow night."
As Voit, his teammates and the entire fan base anticipated, Cole pitched as advertised in his second start in the postseason in a Yankees uniform.
The right-hander shoved six innings on Monday at Petco Park, holding the Tampa Bay Rays to three runs on six hits while striking out eight. Factor in four home runs from the Yankees' offense, including a grand slam and knockout punch from Giancarlo Stanton, and the Bombers cruised to a series-opening victory, 9-3.
"A bit of a grind, some really good pitches, some poor pitches, some excellent defense, good catching great offense," Cole said. "We were able to stop them when it really counted. It was unfortunate to give up the lead twice, but it was a good team game."
In addition to Stanton's blast in the ninth, to put the Rays away, Aaron Judge, Kyle Higashioka and Clint Frazier each mashed a solo home run in the win. Following Cole's sixth frame, Chad Green, Zack Britton and Luis Cessa combined for three shutout innings in relief.
"Everyone in there knows we got the job to do and what's gonna make us successful and what's not," Stanton said. "I think if you see the guy ahead of you get it done then that's another extra boost when you step in there."
Much like the opening matchup of last week's Wild Card Series, Game 1 featured a marquee pitching matchup. Instead of facing the presumptive AL Cy Young Award recipient—Cleveland's ace Shane Bieber—the Yankees were tasked with defeating left-hander and former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell.
The Bombers' bats produced a similar result, clubbing four homers, chasing the starter early and pouring it on the bullpen in the final few innings. New York has now scored 31 runs through three games against a pair of formidable pitching staffs.
"Obviously with the whole lineup working well together, we've been able to really break through eventually like we did tonight where it was a grind there for six or seven innings," Yankees' manager Aaron Boone said. "I think the guys are really focused and hopefully we can continue it tomorrow."
All three of Tampa Bays runs came via the home run against the Yankees' ace. Rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena tied the score at one apiece in the bottom of the first before Ji-Man Choi continued to rake against Cole with a two-run shot in the fourth.
New York ended Snell's night after Higashioka and Judge—the 10th home run of his postseason career—went yard in a span of three batters in the fifth. Stanton's grand slam to dead center, part of a five-run ninth inning, squashed any chance of the Rays climbing back in the bottom half of the ninth.
Cole's strong outing may not have been his best, but the ace remained undefeated this postseason. Facing two formidable lineups in the Rays and Indians, Cole has 21 strikeouts over 12 innings while permitting only five runs over 13 innings pitched thus far.
"This is a tough lineup to navigate because they've got some guys who are swinging a hot bat right now," Higashioka said. "So we just tried to do our best to change speeds use the whole plate, keep them off balance. Basically, pitch to Gerrit's strengths."
With 11 home runs, the Yankees have hit the most ever through a team's first three postseason games. Four long balls on Monday night also made New York just the second team in baseball history to hit three-plus homers in three consecutive postseason games. The only other franchise to accomplish such a feat is the Rays back in 2008.
Looking to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series, 21-year-old right-hander Deivi García will start Game 2 on Tuesday night. Tyler Glasnow will toe the rubber for Tampa Bay, looking to even the series.
Before looking too far ahead, however, Boone recognized his club is far from finishing off the Rays in this best-of-five series.
"It's one game. We've got to win three," he said. "We know they're a great team and a great opponent and we know we got to play our best to beat them. ... We've got to win two more and that's going to be a challenge and we're excited for that challenge."
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