Even with a bulging nine-game lead over Toronto in the AL East after Tuesday night’s 2-0 victory over Tampa Bay, the Yankees are saying all the right things.
“It’s still early,” shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
You know who else has a long way to go? Gerrit Cole. A long way to go to prove he’s still the Yankees’ best starting pitcher.
Cole threw six shutout innings against the Rays at Yankee Stadium to improve to 6-1 with a 3.33 ERA. Usually, those kinds of numbers would get you an invite to the All-Star Game.
But on this Yankees staff, Cole’s ERA is still the highest among the five starters, even after he lowered it from 3.63 with some gutty hurling against the pesky Rays.
“I thought he made a lot of really good pitches and just stayed away from the heart of the plate a lot,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Seemed like he didn’t make a lot of mistakes. I didn’t think his stuff was necessarily overwhelming like you see it a lot, but I thought he executed a lot.”
If the Yankees continue this season on the white-hot pace they have set, they will finish with an MLB record 120 wins. And they will start a playoff series with Cole – their unquestioned, $324-million ace – as the Game 1 starter.
But is he their best starter?
Or, to put it more bluntly, is he the Yankees starter most likely to implode in a big game?
That’s what Cole did in the AL wild-card game against the Red Sox last season, when he allowed three runs in two-plus innings and the Yankees' season came to an end.
That’s what he did on April 19 at Detroit, when he walked five and had to be pulled after 1 2/3 innings.
And that’s what he did in his previous outing on Thursday, when he gave up five home runs and seven runs overall to the Twins in 2 1/3 innings.
Cole took a step forward with his outing on Tuesday. But as much as the rest of the regular season will be about the Yankees cementing their AL East supremacy, a side note to watch will be if former ace Luis Severino (2.80 ERA) or surprise probable first-time All-Star Nestor Cortes (1.96 ERA) end up supplanting Cole as the Yankees’ true ace.
On Tuesday, Cole breezed through the first four innings, allowing only a one-out single to center by Harold Ramirez in the first and striking out six.
The Yankees took a 2-0 lead in the fourth with the help of pair of Tampa Bay errors (that’s not like those pesky Rays!) and a clutch two-out RBI single by Kiner-Falefa, with the second run scoring when leftfielder Randy Arozarena overthrew home plate, pitcher Corey Kluber was late backing up, and Gleyber Torres aggressively scored all the way from first.
Cole faced down the Rays in the fifth after the first two men reached on a single and walk, retiring the 7-8-9 hitters to maintain the shutout.
In the sixth, after a leadoff single by Yandy Diaz, Cole fired wide of second base on a comebacker and the runner was called safe.
But the Yankees challenged, and the call was overturned as the replay officials ruled that Torres had kept the tip of his spike on the base. Game of inches for real.
Manuel Margot then dropped in a bloop single to center and Ji-Man Choi – Cole’s personal nemesis with the Rays – hit a single up the middle that Kiner-Falefa dove and knocked down to keep the run from scoring.
With the bases loaded, Cole got Arozarena to ground the next pitch to Kiner-Falefa, who started an inning-ending double play.
Cole was fired up. Catcher Jose Trevino was fired up. And Boone was so fired up after the game that he got up from his news conference chair and personally demonstrated how he thought Torres’ toe stayed on the bag.
Cole was done after 92 pitches, having given up five hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. It was a good night and one for Cole to build on, for sure. All the way to October, the Yankees hope.