Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole throws in the bottom of the second...

Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole throws in the bottom of the second inning against the Phillies at BayCare Ball Park in Clearwater, Fla., on Thursday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — As spring training outings go, they don’t get much better than Gerrit Cole’s on Thursday afternoon.

Sure, there were the back-to-back hits by Scott Kingery (a double) and Andrew McCutchen (a single) that resulted in a third-inning run, but pay no mind to that.

Cole, armed with a fastball that routinely hit 98 mph and a changeup and curveball that had the Phillies mostly confounded in his three innings, looked "pretty close to regular season-ready," in the words of one opposing team talent evaluator, in the Yankees’ 6-1 victory at BayCare Ballpark.

Cole allowed three hits, struck out five and did not walk a batter. Had he not been throwing a slider that he said "was trash," the afternoon would have been about perfect.

"I had three pitches pretty much going where we wanted them to," said Cole, who pitched to Kyle Higashioka, his personal catcher at the end of last season, on Thursday (Gary Sanchez caught Cole’s debut March 1 and Robinson Chirinos caught his simulated game March 6). "So that's pretty nice. So physically [felt] great, and I got three [pitches] going, so that's pretty good."

Cole, who threw 28 pitches in allowing one run in his one inning March 1, upped his pitch count to 48 in last Saturday’s simulated game and to 50 Thursday.

"I think I have three more starts, so just probably progress from there an inning to two innings . . . maybe add 10 to 15 [pitches] next start and see if we can get maybe into the fifth, or at least to the fourth," Cole said.

Cole went 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts in 2020, his first season with the Yankees. Speaking generally of his performance thus far in 2021, he said: "I think I'm in a good spot. I was pleased with the effort level relative to how the stuff’s coming out."

Cole sounded most pleased with his changeup, which Aaron Boone said was "maybe as good a changeup as I’ve seen from him."

"The life on the fastball was there, the curveball has been there the whole time," Boone said. "So another good step in his progression today."

Cole’s fastball, curve and slider are considered elite pitches but the righthander, well known for leaving no stone unturned in trying to perfect his craft, has been working on getting his changeup to the level of the other pitches.

"It's been pretty good. I mean, I thought it was pretty good last year. I just want to continue to try to hit the location with it," Cole said. "Because if I can at least locate it, I don't always need the best action, I just need something else, just sprinkling in a little uncertainty. I was locating it, so just kind of slid it in there a few times."

Cole, of course, will be on the mound at the Stadium on April 1 for Opening Day, and he reflected on the feeling this year compared to a year ago in spring training, which was officially shut down March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic persists, but Cole said it feels different.

"Last year I didn't think we had a lot of hope as a society. We kept hearing about the second wave and all this stuff," he said. "And so I think, in general, there's more hope that restrictions will loosen, things will get better, people will get the medicine they need to stay healthy. And so that certainly permeates through the clubhouse."

Among the loosening restrictions will be fans in the seats — at least a small percentage of the seats. That means Cole’s family, including his parents, will be able to see him don the pinstripes in person, something that wasn't possible in the 2020 regular season.

"My dad's been itching to get to Yankee Stadium to watch a game and he was like, ‘If they don't let us in for Opening Day, I'm just going to put the radio on outside the gate and just sit there,’ " Cole said with a smile. "I was like, ‘I think we can probably get you in.’ And then, of course, now it's for sure that we'll be able to have them. It'll be obviously easier on everybody's family now that we have some access."

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