SAN DIEGO — A few hours before first pitch, Aaron Hicks became the latest Gerrit Cole teammate to make the comment.
"This is essentially what he gets paid for, to pitch in October," Hicks said, echoing what Aaron Judge and Luke Voit had said. "To dominate in October and help get us to the World Series."
Cole, overpowering in Game 1 of the wild-card series against Cleveland, wasn’t as dominant in Game 1 of the Division Series on Monday against the Yankees’ AL East nemesis, the Rays.
But backed by some of the heavy lumber that helped lead the Yankees to a two-game sweep in Cleveland, Cole had enough in a 9-3 victory over the Rays at Petco Park.
"That’s something these guys are capable of," said Aaron Boone, whose team has totaled 11 homers and 31 runs in its first three postseason games.
Giancarlo Stanton hit a 411-foot grand slam to center to cap a five-run ninth as the Yankees became the first team in American League history to hit grand slams in back-to-back postseason games. Clint Frazier, Kyle Higashioka and Judge hit solo homers earlier in the game.
"That was huge to come out like we did. It was huge," Stanton said. "You know what’s at stake."
Cole, 0-1 with a 4.96 ERA against the Rays this season — par for the course against a team that went 8-2 against the Yankees — allowed three runs and six hits in six innings. He struck out eight and walked two.
"A bit of a grind," he said. "Some really good pitches, some poor pitches. Some excellent defense, some good catching, some excellent offense. We were able to stop them when it really counted."
After Higashioka and Judge homered off Rays ace Blake Snell in the top of the fifth to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead, Cole issued a two-out walk to Brandon Lowe and Randy Arozarena lined a single to right, putting runners at the corners. Cole intentionally walked Ji-Man Choi to load the bases — a good call, given Choi’s two-run homer earlier in the game and his numbers entering the night against Cole: 8-for-12 with three homers.
Cole then struck out Manuel Margot swinging at a 100-mph fastball, punctuating the strikeout with a yell and a fist pump. "Big pitch, big moment," he said. "Executed it perfectly. Glad because I really got myself into a bit of a mess there."
While Cole was not at his best, the Yankees’ offense was against Snell and the bullpen. Snell, who went 4-2 with a 3.24 ERA in 11 starts this season, allowed four runs and six hits, including three homers, in five innings.
A Yankees bullpen that sprung plenty of leaks down the stretch and against Cleveland was superb as Chad Green, Zack Britton and Luis Cessa each pitched a scoreless inning.
"You want to be playing your best ball when it’s the most important," Cole said, speaking generally. "That’s how you get the ultimate prize."
The Yankees gave Cole the lead before his first pitch, just as they did in Cleveland.
DJ LeMahieu, MLB’s batting champion at .364, won a nine-pitch at-bat with a leadoff single to center and went to second on a wild pitch. Judge, who jump-started the Yankees in that Game 1 victory in Cleveland with a two-run home run — also after a LeMahieu single — trickled one in front of the mound, resulting in a 1-3 putout that sent LeMahieu to third. Hicks’ sacrifice fly made it 1-0. It was the first first-inning run allowed by Snell in 2020.
Arozarena homered to center in the bottom of the first to tie it. As good as Cole was this season, he did allow 14 homers, second-most in baseball.
The Yankees took a 2-1 lead in the third when Frazier led off by crushing a 1-and-0 fastball into the second deck in left for a 418-foot home run.
"It’s one game," Boone said of getting a leg up on a team his team can’t stand. "We’ve got to win three. We know they’re a great team and a great opponent. We know we have to play our best to beat them. We have to win two more, and that’s going to be a challenge."