Getting a read on Gerrit Cole’s mental state inside of a Zoom box a day before his Game 1 start against Cleveland was nearly impossible.
It’s not that he was being difficult or evasive. Maybe sometimes a great pitcher just doesn’t want to let people know what he’s thinking. On the mound, Cole looks to avoid patterns, to zig when he’s been scouted to zag.
"He’s always taking it to the next level where he wants to know everything about the other hitters, how to get them out, what their tendencies are," said Kyle Higashioka, who became Cole’s personal catcher during the past month. "And then also try at times to maybe play some mind games, just to give him that little advantage."
Before Monday’s workout at Progressive Field, Cole wasn’t so much into polishing the popular narratives that followed him from New York to Cleveland for this wild-card series. Or actually, even further back, all the way from that December news conference at Yankee Stadium, when Cole was anointed as the chosen one to deliver championship No. 28 to the Bronx.
Other pitchers have been in similar spots before, but not this exact situation. CC Sabathia in ’09 comes to mind. But Cole is the first to be given a $324-million contract, over nine years, with the assignment of ending the Yankees’ decade-long title drought. Hal Steinbrenner wants the investment to yield to a few more, of course. But let’s take this one step at a time.
Against that backdrop, Cole will make a playoff start wholly unlike any of his previous 10. He certainly understands the magnitude, but for one of the more eloquent speakers in the game, it was a subject that Cole kept relatively compact. So when asked Monday what he liked about getting the ball in these scenarios, Cole had some fun with his clipped responses.
"The stakes," he replied.
Can you expand on that?
"They’re high," Cole said.
Yeah, well, he’s right. Coming off a strange, virus-altered season in which the games counted 2.7 times more than normal, Cole should be used to that by now. But MLB’s super-compressed playoff schedule, bumped up to 16 teams from the usual 10, also has created this new best-of-three format, making Tuesday’s Game 1 sort of a hybrid between a semi-important opener and the do-or-die feel of the previous wild card.
Luckily for Cole, he’s done it all in previous stops with the Pirates and Astros, going 6-4 with a 2.60 ERA in the postseason He’s struck out 78 with 16 walks and limited opponents to a .175 batting average and .549 OPS. If you narrow the focus to last year’s five starts for Houston, the ERA dips to 1.72, along with a .165 BA and .515 OPS.
With the Astros, Cole was Public Enemy No. 1 to anyone in pinstripes, but the transition to the Bronx, even during a global pandemic, has been fairly seamless. Perhaps the only speed bump was his original pairing with Gary Sanchez, whose exhaustive efforts to click with Cole -- beginning with Spring Training 1.0 in Tampa -- were considered not quite on the same level as the chemistry developed with Higashioka.
There’s no debating the numbers. Cole’s 1.00 ERA in four starts with Higashioka is nearly three runs lower than the eight starts with Sanchez, so the question of who to start behind the plate for Game 1 was a no-brainer. Cole chalked it up to being on the same wavelength as another SoCal kid -- obviously helping Sanchez save face -- but the Yankees can’t sweat past loyalties during this title chase.
As for Cole, he smiled when a reporter asked if there was anyone he sought out for advice -- this being his Yankees’ postseason debut and all.
"No," Cole replied. "Nobody's played in coronavirus playoffs that I can recollect."
Whatever pressure there is, it hasn’t quashed Cole’s dry sense of humor. And empty Progressive Field is going to feel more like a March exhibition game than a late-September AL showdown, other than having to match zeroes with Cleveland’s presumptive Cy winner Shane Bieber. For Cole, this time of year is business as usual. In his mind, the mission doesn’t really change. Just the uniform. And this year, the format.
"The object is -- if you're taking the ball early -- is to set the tone, both for the pitching staff, and for the team," Cole said. "I've been practicing that this year and I'll just keep trying to get better at it."
The Yankees basically handed Cole a blank check back in December because they believed he is the best man for this particular job. The regular season was a test run. Cole starts earning that money Tuesday night.
"He’s ready to go," manager Aaron Boone said. "He knows what he wants to do. He’ll know how he wants to attack."
Until then, the rest of us are only guessing what’s going on inside Cole’s head. He prefers it that way.