Gerrit Cole #45 of the Yankees hands the ball to manager...

Gerrit Cole #45 of the Yankees hands the ball to manager Aaron Boone as he is removed from a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Gerrit Cole had gone 266 days without throwing a meaningful pitch.

The burning question when Cole finally climbed the mound Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium for his first start of the 2024 season?

Where one of those pitches might wind up.

Gunnar Henderson’s backside? Adley Rutschman’s rib cage?

Or might Cole settle for flipping either Orioles’ star with a high-octane fastball under the chin?

The answer: None of the above.

Rather than going for revenge, Cole played it smart and was strictly business. The Yankees’ ace allowed three hits and two runs over his four-plus innings, striking out five with one walk in his 62-pitch return. Ultimately, the Yankees’ comeback fell short, losing, 7-6, to the Orioles in 10 innings.

Cole gave up some hard contact — the Orioles smacked six balls over 100 mph, including five in the first two innings, and a pair of doubles that scored a run in the first. But Cole’s own velocity was encouraging, as his 95.1 mph average was still a tick below last year’s norm (96.7) and he maxed out at 97.5 mph. Numbers to build on.

“It was kind of a special game for me,” Cole said afterward. “It’s just been a long few months. A lot of emotions, so I wasn’t too sure how I was going to feel out there. Locating the ball always quells the nerves a little bit, you know?”

Speaking of location, the Orioles using Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres for target practice Tuesday night created some simmering tension hanging over Cole’s debut. But he left the revenge part to his relief corps.

In the seventh inning, Victor Gonzalez nailed Henderson on his right shoulder blade with a 95-mph two-seamer, drawing huge cheers from the sellout crowd of 47,155. Despite the umpire’s warning that followed, Caleb Ferguson apparently got a free shot at Colton Cowser in the eighth, drilling him on the right triceps (the Yankees bench was all smiles when Cowser threw down his bat).

As you might expect, manager Aaron Boone took the plausible deniability route when asked about Gonzalez’s errant fastball.

“Up and in, got away from him,” Boone said. “Trying to crowd him with the sinker. Lost it.”

So the Yankees got a drama-free debut from Cole along with a measure of retaliation for Judge, who sat out Wednesday and probably will again for Thursday’s series finale after getting smoked by a fastball on the side of his left hand Tuesday night. With Cole up next, it was only natural to wonder if this AL East rivalry was about to boil over for the middle game.

Instead, the Yankees saved their escalation for after Cole’s exit. Under normal circumstances, with Cole at the peak of his powers, he could certainly handle the role of enforcer. But payback can be a slippery slope, and Cole’s first priority had to be making it as far as he can, as effectively as he can.

This wasn’t Somerset or Scranton anymore. The Orioles weren’t a bunch of awe-struck minor-leaguers. Cole may be the reigning Cy Young winner, but he also was making his ’24 debut in mid-June, nearly three months after sweating the possible need for Tommy John surgery (it turned out to be nerve inflammation inside the elbow).

While the Yankees’ rotation has surprisingly excelled in Cole’s absence — the starters’ 2.86 ERA was the best in the majors — they aren’t winning a title without their fully-functioning ace. Or maybe even the division. Better for Cole to treat Wednesday’s return as the launchpad for another Cy-caliber season.

“He’s an enormous part of our team and an enormous part of our culture,” Boone said before the game. “To have him work his way back to this point is exciting for all of us, but I also don’t want to get too emotionally invested in all that. It’s a process still, to get him where we need to get him, but we feel like he’s in a really good spot and throwing the ball really well.”

This isn’t Cole’s first rodeo. He’s an 11-year veteran who understands the importance of protecting his teammates and not above the extracurricular stuff, either.

A year ago, almost to the day, Cole got fed up with the Mariners’ Jose Caballero messing around between pitches, so he rifled a fastball way over his head that sailed to the backstop. Back in 2022, Cole got into a heated shouting match with the Blue Jays’ Alek Manoah — who nailed Judge — and triggered an incident that prompted some players to spill from their dugouts.

Cole runs hot. It’s the nature of having a Cooperstown-level compete factor. He also is cognizant of his leadership role on these Yankees, which is near or equal to Judge’s stature, even without the official C designation. Both of those elements figured to be in play Wednesday when Cole faced the Orioles, but as Boone mentioned, the reins are still fairly tight on his ace.

So Cole did the right thing in showing restraint during Wednesday’s debut. He exited in the fifth inning to a standing ovation, and big picture, that was a more welcome sight than knocking any Orioles down.


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