On Opening Day, Gerrit Cole was undone, in part, by Billy Crystal.
Fast forward to Wednesday night, and Cole’s nemesis turned out to be Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Getting derailed by last year’s MVP runner-up as opposed to a 74-year-old comedian? We’ll consider that an improvement.
It was Crystal’s ceremonial first-pitch delay that shook Cole in last Friday’s Bronx opener, as the Yankees’ ace pointed a finger at “Mr. Saturday Night” for messing with his rhythm in teeing up three first-inning runs to the Red Sox. Fortunately, for Cole’s sake, he was a safe distance away Wednesday, presumably occupying some stage on Broadway.
Guerrero was a bit too close for comfort, however. Because as easily as Cole sliced through the Blue Jays’ lethal lineup, using a four-seamer that often touched 99 mph, he couldn’t contain Vlad, who homered twice off him (three total on the night) and added an opposite-field double by somehow hitting an 0-and-2 shin-high fastball at 98 (his last three at-bats came after Guerrero had a finger slashed open by Aaron Hicks’ spike).
So on the scale of panic-to-patience for Cole, what was Wednesday’s verdict? Aside from being torched by arguably the game’s most dangerous hitter, Cole seemed closer to his regular self, if not totally resembling the $324-million ace the Yankees thought they signed two years ago.
“Pretty good,” is how Cole described the 5 2/3-inning effort after the Yankees' 6-4 loss.. “I got pretty deep, too ... It’s a tough lineup and we executed a lot of good pitches. Didn’t get away with a couple, but did get away with a few. I think the consistency is starting to come a little bit. Less pulls with the fastball, maybe two hangers with the slider.”
Is the return of a Cy Young-caliber Cole possible in this post-Spider Tack era? Hard to say. We may never see that pre-crackdown version again in pinstripes, unless MLB someday delivers on a universally-approved goo that adds a better grade of tackiness beyond the current rosin bag.
But what we witnessed Wednesday from Cole suggests he’s plenty capable of handling the iron of the AL East, short of the supernatural Guerrero on this particular night. Three of his four hits went to Guerrero, who was responsible for all three runs, and Cole retired nine of the final 10 Jays he faced -- the only blemish being Vlad’s one-out double in the sixth.
Overall, Cole threw 85 pitches before manager Aaron Boone lifted him for Chad Green with two outs and Guerrero on third base in the sixth. Boone has pledged to progress gradually with Cole since the condensed spring training and this was framed as another step in that buildup, if not a quality start.
“Right now, it’s a little more pitch count dependent,” Boone said. “As we get deeper in the season, it changes a little bit. He’s pretty easy to talk to during the game, getting kind of honest feedback to confirm things we’re seeing or thinking. Today he was probably a little past the number that he was going to go, but I felt like I definitely wanted him to go back out there [in the sixth].”
Cole’s biggest mistake on Opening Day flop wasn’t necessarily Rafael Devers’ two-run homer or J.D. Martinez’s RBI double. It was probably suggesting that Crystal, along with the other festivities, messed with his rhythm for that start. He should have swallowed that one. Because after getting knocked around by Boston in consecutive starts -- including last year’s wild-card loss -- no excuse was going to cut it after the lousy opener.
While Wednesday was more encouraging, Cole couldn’t solve Guerrero. With two outs in the first inning, after Cole froze Bo Bichette with a laser-guided 98-mph fastball, Guerrero destroyed a hanging slider, mashing a 416-foot shot that briefly was in the leaping Aaron Hicks’ glove before bouncing off the centerfield netting.
Cole rebounded to retire six of the next seven, including two more Ks, but in the third inning, Bichette’s double was followed by another Guerrero blast that caromed off the back wall of the visitor’s bullpen (427 feet). This time, Cole tried to beat him inside with a 98-mph heater, but Guerrero incredibly still got to the fastball, despite it being off the plate.
“He was just so quick to that pitch,” said Cole, who threw it precisely where he wanted.
Guerrero singlehandedly sabotaged what was supposed to be Cole’s narrative-flipper. That may be a lot to put on a mid-April appearance, especially after a shortened spring training, but Cole doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. The sooner he changes this conversation, the better. For him, and the Yankees.
The Judge Contract subplot already is threatening to become a distraction only five games into the season. Having Cole turn into a $300-million question mark every five days wouldn’t be helpful. That’s why he needed to provide some positive answers Wednesday before the noise around him gets any louder.
Even so, nobody was ready to bury Cole on April 13. Except for Guerrero, apparently.