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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Paste ban has all eyes glued on Gerrit Cole, and he has passed his first test

Umpire Bill Miller checks the glove and hat

Umpire Bill Miller checks the glove and hat of Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole after the top of the third inning against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Officially, Jacob deGrom was the first to be physically scrutinized by MLB’s sticky-stuff crackdown, due to the timing of when he took the mound Monday at Citi Field.

But Gerrit Cole had been under the microscope for weeks, the target of suspicion, allegations and point-blank media questions long before he stepped to the mound Tuesday night to face the Royals in the Bronx.

After all that Cole endured in the court of public opinion — fairly or not — pitching seemed like the easy part. And given the 24 hours advance notice, he at least knew what was coming Tuesday. A few umpires inspecting his cap? Patting down his glove? Watching him unbuckle his belt?

That was nothing compared with Cole being caught (figuratively) with his pants down when asked on a Zoom call if he had ever used Spider Tack. The fallout from Cole’s stumbling non-answer, which many extrapolated to be the ramblings of a guilty conscience, lasted for days on every media platform.

For Cole, Tuesday’s moment of truth should have been an opportunity for vindication. A clean slate, if you will. And Cole did get a passing grade from the umpires — twice — if maybe a little later than he expected. They didn’t check him until after the third inning, and again after the sixth in what eventually was the Yankees’ 6-5 loss to the Royals.

"It’s a bit awkward," Cole said.

As far as pitching under the new substance-free policy, that also is requiring some getting used to. Based on his numbers the past month, Cole probably spent that time ditching his substance of choice, like just about everyone else around the league, and Tuesday’s start reflected that trend. Cole once again was effective, allowing only three hits and two runs in seven innings. He walked three and struck out six as the spin rates for his four-seamer (minus-253) and slider (minus-246) were far below his season average, forcing him to pitch more to bad contact than blowing people away.

"Gosh, if I had a dollar for how many times the Pirates told me to pitch to contact, I may not have as much money now, but I’d still have quite a bit of money," said Cole, who broke in with Pittsburgh but ultimately signed a nine-year, $324-million contract with the Yankees. "That was what was hammered into us growing up. A lot of those fundamentals never left my game.

"I’m just trying to adapt and adjust. Obviously with a lot on the line, you try to put location first, sequencing first. When it’s all said and done, we’re just looking to collect outs. If I can get outs on pitches that I anticipate getting an out on, whether it’s via a swing-and-miss, ground ball or fly ball, or maybe a great defensive play, I’m not going to be picky in that regard. But still definitely adjusting."

Since MLB first leaked word of their pending crackdown, and four minor-leaguers were suspended for using illegal sticky substances, Cole has a 3.81 ERA over those four starts — it was 1.78 through his first 11 — while allowing 27 hits and six homers over 26 innings. During that stretch, he’s surrendered six walks and struck out 26.

If you prefer a different sample, throwing out the five-inning, five-run clunker against the Rays and starting instead from the Twins’ Josh Donaldson publicly calling him out, Cole’s ERA improves to 2.57, so you get the sense he’ll figure this out. Even if he doesn’t quite resemble the ace the Yankees thought they signed in December 2019.

"Gerrit’s great, and he’s going to navigate this," manager Aaron Boone said. "He’s a great pitcher, with great stuff, a great delivery and all kinds of weapons, so he’ll navigate this."

Cole still maxed out at 101 mph Tuesday night, with a fastball that averaged 97.4, so he’s all good there. But it’s only sensible to conclude that Cole’s performance has been negatively impacted and he’s even admitted as much, citing his own problems gripping the baseball under the new restrictions. That doesn’t mean Cole can’t make some beneficial adjustments — or MLB won’t come up with a more uniform method of making the baseballs tackier — but we’re not there yet.

"Right now, if you’re not so comfortable locating a pitch at the top of the zone, or really getting aggressive spinning a pitch to the bottom portion of the zone or taking a chance kind of over the plate, maybe there’s a more logical choice or something you can use to your advantage," Cole said. "Maybe those are things we’re targeting because we’ve still got to get outs."

As we’ve already seen, this situation could get stickier by the day. The Rays’ Tyler Glasnow, one of the sport’s elite arms, blamed a season-threatening elbow injury on having to abandon his preferred rosin-and-sunscreen mixture in his last start. The Red Sox’s Garrett Richards, a spin-rate specialist, unabashedly pinned his poor performance on the inability to grip the baseball, forcing him to ditch his curve altogether and joke about learning a changeup.

Cole, now officially clean after Tuesday’s inspection, very much remains a functioning ace. To what degree, post-crackdown, only time will tell.

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