In many ways, Gerrit Cole’s life has been defined by the Yankees almost as much as it’s been defined by the Pirates or the Astros.
He was a California boy rooting for a team on the opposite coast, thanks to a dad who grew up in Syracuse. He was drafted by the Yankees but turned them down to go to college, and the Yankees were heavy in pursuit when the Pirates were ready to trade him. He instead went to Houston, where AJ Hinch and the famed analytics department helped mold him into a dominating force.
On Tuesday, Cole and the Yankees again will find themselves intertwined. The Yankees will try to go up 2-1 in the ALCS and take a big step toward winning their first World Series since 2009 — a veritable eternity in the Bronx. Cole will try to stop them.
“They’re as advertised,” he said Monday after going right to Yankee Stadium off the plane from Houston. “They’re extremely talented. They are extremely tough in the box. They play every pitch hard. They’re always trying to put pressure on you, trying to control counts.
“I think that it’s inevitable that guys are going to have good at-bats against you and a lot of times the test is going to be how you respond. I think for the most part we’ve done a good job up to this point and just looking to continue to slightly improve and continue just to keep figuring out what we think will bring us some success.”
The Astros have won Cole’s last 15 starts, he’s the major-league strikeout king with 326 and was third in ERA with 2.50. The 20-game winner almost unfathomably is not the sole ace but instead is part of a two-headed hydra along with Justin Verlander. And he represents what the Yankees will have to solve if they’re going to topple the winningest team in baseball.
“We expect to have success,” Aaron Boone said. “We know it’s going to be tough — [a] 4 p.m. game, the shadows will probably play an issue as well and make it difficult. But hopefully as a group we can have some success against him, whether that’s wearing him down a little bit, whether that’s taking advantage of a couple of mistakes that we do get.
“I would say the biggest thing — and always the separator for guys, especially guys with elite stuff like he has — is command. And he’s commanding the ball as well as he ever has.”
Cole can be somewhat susceptible to the home run (he allowed 29 this year). The Yankees hit plenty of those, and they certainly know how to exploit their short porch in right. But his four-seam fastball is a fearsome weapon and his knuckle curve and slider — located well in his scorching-hot 15-game stretch — threaten to quiet even the Yankees’ bats.
And there’s that other factor, too. Cole’s fate seems determined to be defined by the Yankees, and it doesn’t hurt that he’ll get to feed off that very special Bronx energy.
He’s never seen a playoff game here as a fan, he said, but he certainly remembers the old Yankee Stadium. He made it over from California about seven times to see the Yankees play there. He knows what it’s like.
“It’s going to be exciting,” he said. “I pitched here once before and I had a lot of fun. I always enjoy coming here and I’ve heard my teammates’ recollection of the atmosphere here. So it just sounds like what a great stage and electric atmosphere and a great place to play some exciting baseball.”