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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Gerrit Cole suspects he might be tipping pitches

Gerrit Cole, shown here Monday against the Rays

Gerrit Cole, shown here Monday against the Rays at Yankee Stadium, has an 8.10 ERA in his last two starts.   Credit: Jim McIsaac

It’s the $324 million question facing the Yankees right now. And one nobody expected to be asking.

What’s wrong with Gerrit Cole?

Something is clearly off. We’re not saying there’s a fatal flaw in the Yankees’ ace, but Cole hasn’t been himself the last two starts. Small sample size, sure. Even so, the numbers are so out of whack, they just don’t make sense.

Since Cole’s 20-game winning streak ended last Wednesday in Atlanta, he’s 0-2 with an 8.10 ERA, allowing 13 hits and nine earned runs in 10 innings. Cole has walked six while striking out 16. Opposing hitters have smacked him around for five home runs, a .310 batting average and 1.122 OPS.

Now compare those stats to his previous six starts: 4-0, 2.75 ERA, six walks and 44 Ks over 36 innings. Cole still served up seven homers during that stretch, but limited the damage with a .197 OBA and .662 OPS.

Even Cole had trouble simply shaking off Monday’s latest drubbing by the Rays, a 5-3 loss that featured two more jarring home runs, a rocket by his nemesis Ji-Man Choi and a 411-foot blast by Kevin Kiermaier. Normally, an elite pitcher of Cole’s stature would try to downplay the damage, just flush it as an off night.

But that’s not how Cole is wired. A deep thinker, he’s obsessed with data and the analytical breakdown of his performances. Cole also doesn’t hide what’s annoying him, and after seeing hitters again take huge cuts at his pitches, he wondered aloud if tipping was becoming a problem.

“Whenever I am over the plate, the hitter is very certain of what’s coming and whether that’s an approach or trying to get an edge with a tip or a good swing on a bad pitch — maybe a combination of all three — I can’t put my thumb on it, but I’m certainly aware of it,” Cole said Monday night.

“I think we all pretty much tip pretty much every game, one way or another. How many pitches a game? I don’t know . . . The point is there are several different factors contributing to the certainty with which guys are getting their swings off in certain counts. I’m looking to address that.”

Pitchers aren’t usually that honest. If there is a potential weakness to be exploited, the last thing they want to do is shine a spotlight on it. But Cole sounded like a man determined to find the solution, to debug the software, to sit down and study video until the betrayal could be rooted out and eliminated.

Cole was more upfront than manager Aaron Boone, who will always take measures to protect his ace. Boone isn’t going to lay out the Yankees’ strategy for decoding the puzzle, or even acknowledge that such an operation is going on with Cole.

“I’d like to think we’re as vigilant as anyone when it comes to that kind of stuff, so I’m not going to get too far into that,” Boone said Tuesday. “But that’s something that we’re always trying to stay on top of with all our pitchers, with all our pitchers at the alternate site, trying to look for things that need to be cleaned up at different times.”

Cole will fix it. We have zero doubt of that. But it needs to happen sooner rather than later, with the rotation as a whole not exactly humming along lately. The Yankees need to win when he’s on the mound and Cole hasn’t put them in a position to do so his last two times out there, due in large part to him serving up dingers with alarming frequency.

The Rays’ pair of home runs Monday night ran Cole’s total to 12, tying the Blue Jays’ Ross Stripling for the most in the majors. We’re not talking weak contact here. He’s getting barreled up, and that’s why Cole is suspicious of a potential tipping problem.

Speaking candidly, Cole said Monday’s loss was “eating at me” because he came up small in a big spot. For Boone, that was more a signal of Cole’s sense of responsibility than a red flag of him trying to cope with the building pressure.

“When you are a great pitcher, and as good a competitor as he is, when you don’t have the kind of success you’re accustomed to for a couple of starts, it’s natural as a competitor that that eats at you,” Boone said. “It’s part of the game. This sport will eat at you in the best of times and certainly in the times when you scuffle. He has all the equipment to navigate that, he has the right mindset to navigate that, and we’ll continue to support him and look forward to him going back out there in four more days.”

The Yankees better hope it’s not the same imposter from the past two starts. They need the real Gerrit Cole back. Anything less and the questions will only get louder.

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