SAN DIEGO – Gerrit Cole has never started a game in his career on short rest.
By virtue of the Yankees season-saving 5-1 victory over the Rays in Game 4 of the Division Series Thursday night at Petco Park, that will occur Friday night in a win-or-go-home Game 5.
"Give me the ball," Aaron Boone said Thursday afternoon of Cole’s reaction when the topic was broached.
Exactly the attitude one would expect from a pitcher who signed a record nine-year, $324 million contract in the offseason, that kind of deal OK’d by managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner precisely with these kinds of games in mind.
"[That] we’re going to win it," Luke Voit said afterward of the clubhouse feeling heading into a deciding Game 5. "We’re locked and loaded…I know Gerrit’s going to come out and do his thing."
The reason the Yankees get to give the ball to Cole, 8-4 with a 2.75 ERA in his career in the playoffs, in Game 5 is because of the work of Jordan Montgomery, a 27-year-old lefthander with no postseason resume, two monster home runs by Voit and Gleyber Torres and lockdown work by a bullpen that has received its share of criticism for its inconsistency.
"This team’s got more fight in it," said Montgomery, whose work in and out of trouble over his four innings in which he allowed one run and three hits proved critical.
The bullpen was lights out Thursday as Chad Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman combined to throw five scoreless – and hitless – innings after Montgomery’s departure.
There’s no telling whom exactly Boone will have available out of his bullpen in Game 5 – placing additional pressure on Cole to go deep – but none of the three power relievers threw a ton of pitches and, regardless, as former manager Joe Girardi so often said this time of year: "You worry about tomorrow, tomorrow."
Making his playoff debut against a Rays team that totaled 12 homers their first five postseason games – third in the majors behind the Yankees (14) and A’s (13) – Montgomery grinded through four innings in which he allowed one run, three hits and three walks.
"Big-time outing," Boone said of Montgomery. "We just needed him to give us a little bit. Was hopeful he’d get us through [the Rays order] two times, but anything he could give us early we’d take. Great job of setting the tone for us."
Green struck out two over two perfect innings, Britton struck out three over a perfect 1 2/3 innings, and Aroldis Chapman, as good as any reliever in the sport the last month of the season, recorded the final four outs – two on strikeouts – for the save.
The Rays, who essentially invented the "opener" concept, went with one Thursday, righty Ryan Thompson, who allowed two runs and two hits over 1 2/3 innings. Lefthander Ryan Yarbrough took over and allowed two runs – coming on Torres’ titanic shot in the sixth into the third level of the brick Western Metal Supply Co. building located down the leftfield line that made it 4-1 – and six hits over five innings.
Yandy Diaz led off the night with a single but was erased when Voit fielded Brandon Lowe’s ground smash and turned it into a 3-6 double play. Montgomery then did what most Yankees pitchers had failed to do in the series – retired Randy Arozarena. Montgomery struck out the rookie, who entered the night 8-for-12 with three homers in the series, to end the eight-pitch inning (Arozarena finished 0-for-4 with two strikeouts).
Voit, MLB’s home run champion this season with 22, led off the second by hammering Thompson's hanging slider halfway up the second deck in leftfield, the first baseman’s first career postseason homer making it 1-0 and giving the Yankees their 15th homer in their first six postseason games, extending their record (Torres’ upped the total to 16).
Voit’s homer seemed to cause Thompson to completely lose the strike zone as the sidearmer walked three straight to load the bases. Kyle Higashioka, officially supplanting Gary Sanchez as the No. 1 catcher, struck out but LeMahieu’s sacrifice fly brought in Gardner, who has reached base in 11 of 17 plate appearances this postseason, to make it 2-0. Montgomery allowed his one run in the third but stranded two and the pitcher stranded two more in the fourth to keep his team in front.
"I knew they would come ready to play," Boone said of his club. "I knew they would relish the opportunity [that comes] with a win-or-go-home game. I didn't notice any real big difference with them, it was kind of business as usual. But there was certainly an edge to them right before the game. I thought everyone came up big tonight."