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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Lennon: 'Give me the ball' is the right attitude for Yankees

The Yankees' Gleyber Torres reacts as he rounds

The Yankees' Gleyber Torres reacts as he rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run to score Brett Gardner during the sixth inning in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Rays on Thursday in San Diego Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

So here we are, yet another game, this one a winner-take-all situation, with everyone saying that the pressure’s on Gerrit Cole to earn his $324-million paycheck. Or mountains of paychecks. You get the idea.

But Friday night’s Game 5 against the Rays is not just about Cole, and whether or not he’ll rise to the occasion pitching on short rest for the first time in his career. True, that’s a dicey proposition. You never know how these assignments go. Some perform like it’s no big deal. Others, not so much.

My hunch is that Cole should be fine. Despite some spotty fastball command of late, adrenaline can do amazing things in October, and Cole is a pitcher acutely aware of his responsibility at this defining moment. He’s been hearing it since Christmas. As for any advance heads-up this week to prepare for Game 5, Cole replied, "Nobody needed to tell me that."

According to manager Aaron Boone, Cole had a simple message for him.

"Give me the ball."

As for the rest of the Yankees, well, this is a Game 5 they really can’t lose. I mean, it’s possible the Rays will beat them -- they’re sending out Tyler Glasnow on two days’ rest -- but failure isn’t an option now.

Not after they dug out from a 5-15 tailspin in September, not after the Garcia-Happ fiasco that pushed them to the brink of elimination in this Division Series, and not after they put off a long winter with Thursday night’s impressively thorough 5-1 victory over the Rays.

Tampa Bay earned the No. 1 seed in the American League as the East champs. The Yankees, despite a ragged regular season, were miscast as No. 5. And as complete as the Rays may be, with their platoon advantages and stellar pitching staff, the Yankees can’t bend the knee again, like they did eight of 10 times over the previous two-plus months.

It just can’t happen. Not with the expectations these Yankees have been saddled with since signing Cole, and every day thereafter. Even those in the clubhouse realize the stakes here, and they extend beyond merely getting out of the Division Series.

"We’re going to win it," said Luke Voit, who drilled his first postseason homer Wednesday. "We’re locked and loaded. We’re going to come out fighting."

The Yankees improved to 7-3 in elimination games since 2017 and they’re 15-13 all-time in winner-take-all games, including 3-1 over the past three years. But this is uncharted territory for Cole, who’s never been pushed to go on short rest before in 216 career starts, including the postseason. The closest he’s come is asking teammates about it, like Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Dallas Keuchel. Or knowing what CC Sabathia did during his half-season with the Brewers in 2008, which Cole brought up late Thursday night.

"It's not something that's probably sustainable for the whole season," Cole said. "But certainly the human body is capable of doing it. It just kind of is what it is. You’ve got to go out and do your job. When the lights are turned on, it doesn't matter if it's three, four, five, six, seven days -- you got to do your job."

That speaks for the other Yankees as well, and there were positive signs surrounding Thursday’s revival. Ironically, the Yankees benefited from a pitching decision they didn’t have to make. Jordan Montgomery was assigned to rescue them from a long winter, basically because he was the only starter left, and his four-inning, one-run performance definitely out-shined even the rosiest projections in his postseason debut.

Getting a 2-1 lead to Chad Green for the fifth was fine with manager Aaron Boone. Two innings later, it was nine outs from Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman. No need for fancy algorithms on this night. This was a paint-by-numbers Picasso, but made possible by a pair of blunt instruments in Voit and Gleyber Torres, who switched the power back on with spectacular home runs.

With Voit and Torres each going deep, the Yankees’ postseason homer-tally is now up to a record 16 through the first six games -- surpassing the 2004 Astros (15) -- and made Petco feel more like their cozy Bronx home, which it was designed to be for Game 4. The stadium’s sound system even blared Sinatra’s "New York, New York," after Aroldis Chapman whiffed Mike Brosseau with a 101-fastball for the final out.

"I knew they’d come ready to play," Boone said. "I knew they’d relish the opportunity with the win-or-go-home game. I didn’t notice any real big difference with them. It was kind of business as usual."

But still unfinished. And that’s all it will be if the Yankees can’t close the deal Friday night in Game 5.

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