Earlier this season, when asked how the Yankees approach a game offensively when Gerrit Cole is on the mound, Aaron Judge said he and his teammates focus on scoring one run.
On Wednesday night in Tampa Bay, one run was all New York needed.
Cole continued his torrid start to the regular season with another historic performance, commanding the Rays from start to finish in a 1-0 victory at Tropicana Field.
The ace struck out 12 over eight scoreless innings, his first outing this season that lasted more than seven frames. Cole surrendered four scattered hits while walking zero batters for the fifth straight start.
"He's an ace. He's an absolute bulldog," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said postgame. "I think he lives for pitching when it's tough and in the biggest of games. In a 1-0 game, we needed all of it, so he was in leverage the entire time."
A performance like this from Cole, against a division rival that's had the upper hand in head-to-head matchups of late, would have been enough. But Cole toed the rubber and carried his team to victory amid a COVID-19 outbreak within the organization.
With a scary and stressful situation developing over the past several days—and seven members of the coaching and support staff absent due to positive tests—Cole reveled in an assignment that had even more meaning than usual.
"I certainly enjoy playing meaningful games," the right-hander said. "There's a lot going on today and it was a bit challenging to get focused for the game, but once you're there, it was kind of business as usual. So I try to keep that mindset all the time and I think it's helpful when there's a little bit more on the line."
In fact, it's been business as usual for Cole all season, no matter who he's faced. The ace has 78 strikeouts this season over eighth outings and 52.2 innings, pitching to a 5-1 record in that span.
With his dozen strikeouts on Wednesday, Cole eclipsed the 1,500-strikeout mark on his career. Doing so in 212 games, the right-hander became the second-fastest pitcher in MLB history to reach 1,500 career strikeouts. Only Hall of Famer Randy Johnson did it quicker (206 games).
Cole was on the attack all night long, as he often is. His catcher, Kyle Higashioka, praised the right-hander's ability to mix all four of his pitches, keeping the Rays' lineup uncomfortable and off balance.
His only mistake came in the bottom of the sixth when Cole spun a slider right over the heart of the plate to the dangerous Randy Arozarena. The outfielder clubbed a double off the top of the left-field wall, but was stranded at second two batters later.
In the bottom of the eighth, Cole struck out the side on 12 pitches. His last pitch of the game—a swinging strikeout from center fielder Brett Phillips—was clocked at 98.8 mph. It was Cole's 16th whiff on his elite fastball on the night.
"He's so good and so fun to watch and so versatile out there and able to get you out in so many different ways," Boone said. "He was very pitch efficient early on there. Anytime he did lose leverage in a count, got behind, he made big pitches."
In another circumstance, perhaps Cole goes out there to finish the shutout. This time, even with only 106 pitches thrown, Cole recognized that it was best to hand the ball off to closer Aroldis Chapman for the ninth.
Part of that decision was the long day he and his teammates had experienced to that point, dating back before first pitch. The uncertainty of who had tested positive for the virus despite the vast majority of the team already receiving the vaccine, reverting back to stricter safety protocols in the clubhouse and ballpark facilities, took a toll on Cole and all parties involved. It's a testament to the club's fortitude to go out and win back-to-back contests against a talented opponent while managing an outbreak internally.
As much as Cole's performance was unprecedented with that in mind, another dominant start from the ace doesn't come as a surprise. The truth is, Cole has been as advertised all season long.
He hasn't given up more than two earned runs in any of his eight starts, providing the Yankees with a chance to win every time out. His 26.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best in baseball (among qualified pitchers). And it seems like Cole is etching his name in the history books each time he goes to work on the mound.
On Wednesday, however, Cole was focused on taking his mind off of what was going on off the field. When one of the best pitchers on the planet can get in his zone, this Yankees team is hard to beat.
“Anytime we get to play right now, it’s like a nice release,” Cole said. “When the only thing we have to focus on is playing, it’s kind of simpler for us.”
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