New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole gave up three...

New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole gave up three home runs and six runs in the first inning against Seattle on Aug. 3, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Gerrit Cole is as key to the Yankees’ hopes of postseason success as any player on their 26-man roster.

That is how it should be. He is the team’s ace and has the largest contract of any pitcher in baseball history.

But if Cole pitches in October like he did against Seattle on Wednesday afternoon-- when he allowed six runs on three home runs to the first seven batters in the Yankees' 7-3 defeat -- then the Yankees might not be hoisting World Series trophy No. 28 as they hope.

Cole followed what he called his first-inning "clunker" with five shutout innings during which he allowed two singles and struck out six. The score was 6-1 when he left as new Seattle ace Luis Castillo – whom the Yankees couldn’t pry from the Reds – held the Aaron Judge-less (day off) lineup to three hits over the first six innings in his Mariners debut.

"It's kind of hard to believe how much it just blows up so quick," Cole said. "Try to be excellent out there and obviously (was) not."

So which Cole are the Yankees getting in October? First-inning Cole or rest-of-the-game Cole?

There’s not much riding on the answer. Just the hopes and dreams of an entire fanbase.

The top of the first was shocking.

Eugenio Suarez, a three-run homer to left on a hanging slider. Carlos Santana, a solo shot into the right-centerfield bleachers on a 99-mile per hour fastball. Jarred Kelenic, a two-run blast to right on a changeup.

It was an equal-opportunity barrage. The Mariners hit nearly every pitch Cole has.

Boy, did the Yankee Stadium crowd let Cole know about it after he got his first out – a strikeout of Seattle’s sixth batter, 12 minutes into the game – and again after the final out of the inning.  

First, it was sarcastic Bronx cheers. Then, flat-out Bronx boos.

“Why did you trade Montgomery?” a leather-lunged fan yelled from behind home plate.

In his fifth and final deadline-week deal on Tuesday, Brian Cashman surprisingly dealt lefthander Jordan Montgomery to St. Louis for injured centerfielder Harrison Bader.

Dealing away Montgomery and some top prospects made the Yankees “definitely a little thinner” with their rotation depth, manager Aaron Boone admitted on Wednesday morning.  

Moving Montgomery isn't that big of a deal. The lefty always seemed to be less than he could or should be, something that he copped to during an emotional farewell news conference.

Perhaps Cashman is hoping Bader – once recovered from a foot injury that will keep him out until September – can have a Dave Roberts moment in the playoffs, with a key steal at just the right time that will live on in Yankees lore.

Starting rotation depth doesn’t matter as much in the postseason, when all you need is three or maybe four starters. If all went well, Montgomery wasn’t going to be one of them.  

What will matter most in October is whether Cole is the best version of himself. Not the version he was in the first inning in his third troublesome outing of the season.

On April 19 at Detroit, Cole had to be removed after 1 2/3 innings because he couldn’t find the plate (five walks).

On June 9 at Minnesota, Cole gave up home runs to the first three batters and five home runs overall in 2 1/3 innings.

Amazingly, the Yankees came back to win both games. But not on Wednesday and not in his last postseason start.

Just think back to Cole’s AL wild-card game start against the Red Sox last season, when he only lasted two-plus innings and allowed three runs in the Yankees’ season-ending 6-2 defeat.

Does Cole get a partial pass for that one because he was probably affected by a hamstring injury that was worse than he let on? Yes.  

Still, if the Yankees want to get to where they hope to go, a key piece is Cole being the ace Hal Steinbrenner spent a record $324 million on before the 2020 season - and Cole knows it.

"Right now, I'm looking to try to continue to improve," he said. "We've got to be performing the way we want, performing at a level of excellence, by the time October comes."

When Cole was introduced, Steinbrenner said he expected to win multiple championships during the righthander’s nine-year deal.  

“Plural,” Steinbrenner said.

How about the Yankees start with one more? That starts with their ace. All the wheeling and dealing Cashman did during deadline week didn’t change that Cole, hard fact.

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