Gerrit Cole knows what it’s like to pitch with everything on the line. Do-or-die elimination games, a World Series quest hanging in the balance.
But nothing could have prepared him for what he faced Wednesday night at Target Field, where Cole’s reputation was at stake, his entire body of work on trial, due to clingy allegations of using "sticky stuff" to enhance his performance and the elite spin rate on his pitches.
Cole further entangled himself in the gooey mess by projecting a confused, if not guilty face during Tuesday’s Zoom interrogation by reporters. The question then became whether or not Cole’s brilliance was merely a product of those products, so even though MLB’s pledged crackdown isn’t supposed to go into effect for another few days, Cole already was feeling the heat, the burn of an unwelcome spotlight, a nation of skeptical eyeballs tuned in.
On Wednesday night, Cole fought back against those ready to label him a fraud, a $324-million cheat, and squashed that suspicious talk for at least another turn. Cole also humbled his most vocal accuser Josh Donaldson (0-for-3, 2 Ks) as he struck out nine over six solid innings in the Yankees’ 9-6 victory over the Twins.
Did Cole believe that put an end to the "sticky stuff" discussion as it pertained to him?
"I don’t know," Cole said. "The outside chatter is the outside chatter. As players, we’ve just got to do our best to stay focused on our job."
Cole surrendered five hits, two of them homers, but did not allow a walk in trimming his ERA to 2.31. His four-seam fastball maxed out at 100.5 mph with an average velocity of 98.2 — a full tick above his season average (97.2). And for the spin-rate sleuths, the four-seamer was down only 59 RPMs (as compared to a minus-125 in his previous start) and the slider decreased by 87 (according to BaseballSavant.com)
Any skeptics looking for a smoking gun didn’t get it Wednesday night, but that was hardly a surprise to manager Aaron Boone, who shrugged when asked if this would serve as a narrative-destroying performance by Cole.
"Who knows?" Boone said. "The one thing I know is he’s an amazing pitcher and a tremendous competitor. And when all this dust settles, wherever this storyline goes, that ain’t changing. I just thought his effort with all the distractions going on around him, he went out there and showed you who he was."
The debate over baseball’s latest form of substance abuse had swallowed the sport in recent days, but Cole was vaulted into the center of the storm, put there in part by Donaldson, who called out the Yankees’ ace by name last week.
But Wednesday’s round convincingly went to Cole, who whiffed Donaldson in his first two at-bats before retiring him on a lazy fly ball in the sixth inning. Cole made him look foolish swinging over a knuckle curve in the first inning and later fanned him on a high slider in the third. Both times, Cole glared at Donaldson for a few extra beats on the punch out, then touched his visor in what resembled a "see-YA" salute.
It was Donaldson who teed up Cole for a renewed round of public scrutiny with last week’s thinly-veiled accusations, then doubled down on them before facing him Wednesday. Repeatedly poking a bear who throws 100-mph is a bold move, but it was Cole who did the most damage to himself during Tuesday’s Zoom conference with media.
Cole clumsily tiptoed his way through the awkward 15-minute session, and wound up leading with his chin when asked directly if he had ever used Spider Tack, the super-sticky, glue-like substance designed for power lifters but adopted by pitchers to jack up their spin rates.
After flunking that test, Cole came up with a better answer when he took the mound Wednesday, and later said his initial stumbling response was due to the fact that he didn’t want to get into those details on a Zoom call.
"I hesitated yesterday on the specificity of the question because I just don’t think this is the forum to discuss those kinds of things," Cole said.
Instead, Cole pitched like he had a message to deliver after being ripped and ridiculed in the days leading up to Wednesday’s start, which was no easy task.
"I think it’s fair to say it’s difficult to do it in this jersey in general," Cole said. "But that’s what we sign up for when we come here."
Cole’s mission Wednesday night was simple, yet monumental. Quiet the noise, and silence Donaldson. Regarding those matters, he got the last word.