Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) in the first inning...

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) in the first inning of Game 1 of an American League wild-card baseball series against Cleveland, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland.  Credit: AP/David Dermer

SAN DIEGO — Gerrit Cole, who treats a bullpen session in February the way he would treat a warmup session before Game 1 of the World Series, will never say it.

To him, every game, every side session, should be dealt with as an absolute must-win.

But his new franchise didn't sign him to win regular-season games. It is for this time of year that he was offered the contract he signed last offseason: a nine-year, $324 million deal, a record for a pitcher.

As Aaron Judge put it after watching Cole strike out 13 in the Yankees' 12-3 victory over Cleveland in Game 1 of the wild-card series: "This is why we got him. We didn’t get him to throw in April, we didn’t get him to throw in May. We got him to throw postseason baseball for the Yankees.

"This time he took it up another notch . . . just being an animal out there attacking hitters. That was fun to be a part of, and looking for more out of him."

More could come Monday at Petco Park when Cole, coming off his first regular season with the team he grew up rooting for, takes the mound in Game 1 of the Division Series against the top-seeded Rays and ace Blake Snell.

Cole went 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts in the regular season, striking out 94 in 73 innings. It was a typically spectacular season for him, but that success didn’t translate against the Rays.

Cole went 0-1 with a 4.96 ERA in three starts against them. He struck out 27 in 16 1/3 innings, but the Rays hit five homers against him, drew six walks and batted .294 with a .963 OPS.

"Just a really good ballclub all around," said Cole, who went 2-0 with a 0.57 ERA in a five-game ALDS victory over the Rays last year while he was with the Astros. "[They] take care of baseball on defense, play good offense, many different styles of how they can play offense. They’ve got a good rotation and they’ve got a good bullpen."

While Cole did not pitch well against the Rays this year, the pitcher who took the mound against them doesn’t resemble the one who took the mound in the season’s last month.

In his final three starts, with Kyle Higashioka serving as his personal catcher, Cole went 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA. Their effectiveness together continued in Game 1 in Cleveland as Cole allowed two runs, six hits and zero walks in seven innings.

"We paid him to pitch in October," Luke Voit said Sunday before the Yankees worked out at Petco Park for the second straight day. "And it’s a lock. Everyone knows that. We needed him to go out there and throw seven, eight strong innings and do what he does best. And he's got so much experience with that, so we expect him to do really well tomorrow night."

And, his team hopes, get the Yankees one step closer to the World Series. They haven’t been there since 2009, the year they won their 27th title.

Cole, of course, is looking for his first. He came excruciatingly close last season, but the Astros lost to the Nationals in seven games.

After losing Game 1 — his first loss since May 22 — Cole allowed one run and struck out nine in seven brilliant innings in a 7-1 victory in Game 5. He was available out of the bullpen in Game 7 and even warmed up in the later innings, but he never got in the game, a 6-2 Nationals victory.

"I think it's what drives all of us," Cole said. "I have my own particular motivations for my journey up to this point. And everybody on this club has their own story, their own narrative that's gotten them to this point. At the end, all of us have to be as motivated as we can to take this trophy, so anything that you can use to add fuel to that fire. Unfortunately, it usually comes in the form of some sort of [postseason loss], so it's not always easy to swallow at the time, but hopefully it can be useful down the line."

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