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Gerrit Cole proves to be splendid investment by Yankees with performance in Game 1 vs. Cleveland

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole in the first

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole in the first inning of Game 1 of an American League wild-card baseball series against Cleveland on Sept. 29, 2020. Credit: AP/David Dermer

There was no buyer’s remorse on display Tuesday night at Progressive Field.

The Yankees got what they paid for. Gerrit Cole, at a sticker price of $324 million, was worth every penny.

This was just Cole’s long-awaited playoff opener for the Yankees. He still has eight more years to go on his mega-deal, but we can only break this down one start at a time. And here’s the bottom line regarding Cole’s impact on the Yankees’ 12-3 rout of Cleveland.

Cole went head-to-head with the AL’s runaway Cy Young favorite in Shane Bieber and made him look like he didn’t belong on the same stage. Credit the Yankees with a big assist -- their seven runs off Bieber equaled his total for the entire month of August -- but Cole made sure Cleveland didn’t even dream of a comeback by striking out 13, a record for a pitcher making his playoff debut for the Yankees.

"This is why we got him," Aaron Judge said. "We didn’t get him to throw in April. We didn’t get him to throw in May. We got him to throw in postseason baseball, and that’s what he did. All year, seeing him throw, he takes it to another level. But this time, he took it up another notch."

Cole allowed six hits and two runs with zero walks over seven innings, which kept his postseason ERA at 2.60 over 11 starts. He also moved into third place with a 11.27 K/9 ratio (minimum 50 IP) -- up from sixth to begin the night -- to trail only Stephen Strasburg (11.55) and Jake Arrieta (11.28).

"We needed to set the tone for the series," Cole said afterward. "I’m obviously very thankful and humbled to be able to take the ball and be in this position. So to be able to deliver feels really good. Obviously, with my son here, that felt really good, too. I would say it was definitely a special night."

As Cole mentioned, Tuesday’s series opener was different than any of his other starts during the regular season, not only because of the additional pressure but having his wife, Amy, and three-month-old son, Caden, in the stands as MLB opened the ballparks to families for these playoffs.

"Amy sent me a picture of them and it was pretty cool," said Cole, who beamed talking about the two. "I spent some time with them today between naps. He’s a really sweet boy, but his personality hasn’t come all the way yet. Geez, this is the first time we got to go to the ballpark together as a family. It’s certainly something I’ll always remember. Never thought his first game would be in Cleveland."

Cleveland would have preferred that Daddy Cole wasn’t there. He opened by getting Francisco Lindor to swing through an 83-mph curve, followed that by blowing away Cesar Hernandez with 98 upstairs then proceeded to whiff four of the first five as he kept Cleveland’s hitters flailing all night.

Cole thrived again with personal catcher Kyle Higashioka, who piloted him to a 1.00 ERA over this final four regular-season starts, and was more than battle-tested after facing the East’s dangerous hitters for two-plus months. The same could not be said for Bieber. Once Cleveland’s ace was forced to venture out of the cozy Central competition -- where his seven opponents batted .239 with a .309 on-base percentage during the regular season -- he got slapped around by a Yankees’ team ready to vent some frustration.

Did that make life a little easier for Cole? Of course. When Judge spotted him a 2-0 lead only four pitches into the game, it was advantage Cole, who then just had to start chipping away at Cleveland’s confidence, pitch by pitch, inning by inning, as the Yankees kept piling on runs.

There were a few slight glitches along the way. But very minor in the grand scheme of things. The outlier of the night was Josh Naylor denting Cole for three hits, including a one-out homer in the fourth inning that cut the Yankees’ lead to 5-2. Even then, the game never felt that close.

And whatever Naylor was seeing from Cole, he wasn’t able to pass it along to his overmatched teammates. According to MLB’s research, Naylor was the first player to twice "barrel up" Cole in the same game since Shin-Soo Choo did it back on July 4, 2018.

Translation for the non-analytic crowd: Hitters rarely make solid, loud contact against Cole, and when they do, it only happens once a night. That was certainly true in Game 1, as Cleveland rarely touched him and didn’t put a runner in scoring position after Jose Ramirez’s third-inning double.

Ramirez, the likely AL MVP, capped off Cleveland’s only real threat against Cole with RBI double inside the leftfield line. Cole followed that by retiring 13 of the next 15 as the Yankees built a demoralizing 11-2 lead. As debuts go, this just about lived up to the nine months of hype.

"That was fun to be a part of," Judge said, "and I look forward to more of that."

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