Maybe there will come a time when Gerrit Cole has built up enough equity in pinstripes that his $324 million contract won’t always be tied to the Next Big Start.
We’re not sure how many World Series rings that’s going to require. Or even playoff victories, for that matter.
But Cole isn’t there yet. And so Friday night at Fenway Park was another occasion to mention that this is what the Yankees paid him all that money for.
To beat the Red Sox, with a wild-card berth hanging in the balance, pitching at the most hostile arena in baseball for someone wearing New York road grays.
Cole knew this would be part of the deal as soon as he put pen to paper two years ago, and failure isn’t an option. Before Friday, he still was looking for his first career win at Fenway Park in five tries (0-3, 5.19 ERA).
Now Cole can scratch that off his to-do list after protecting an early 7-0 lead for six innings -- allowing five hits and three runs -- as the Yankees rolled to an 8-3 victory over the Red Sox. Cole had a 3-0 cushion before even throwing a pitch, and he didn’t allow his first hit until J.D. Martinez ripped a two-out double in the fourth.
"I made enough pitches, and we scored enough that we got a really great result," Cole said. "And now we’ll have to do it again because we’ve got a lot of big games coming up for us."
The Yankees’ instant offense had to be somewhat of a relief for Cole, who still had a pair of innings with 20-plus pitches and finished with 94 on the night. His only mistake was a changeup that Rafael Devers hooked over the rightfield wall for a three-run shot that trimmed the lead to 7-3 in the sixth -- Devers’ third homer off Cole this season. That briefly sparked the Fenway crowd to life, but Cole retired Martinez on a deep fly ball to the track in right and got Alex Verdugo on a groundout.
Friday’s mostly drama-free outing should set up Cole well for the stretch run, as he’ll be deployed again for another huge start against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre and possibly one on short rest during the final weekend -- if the Yankees desperately need him -- when the Rays visit the Bronx.
"He’s our ace, he’s our horse," Boone said. "For him to go out and set the tone for us, especially after the offense put up a three-spot there in the first inning, I thought he did a great job of avoiding those momentum innings. There’s a very short list of people you’d rather hand the ball to."
The wide-angle view of Cole’s season has him in the running for his first Cy Young. He improved to 16-8 Friday with a 3.08 ERA and his 237 strikeouts are the third-most by a Yankee in a single season behind Ron Guidry (248 in 1978) and Jack Chesbro (239 in 1904). Entering Friday, Cole also led the AL (third overall) with a 6.08 K/BB ratio, and his four starts with at least 12 strikeouts and zero walks was tied for the most ever in a single season.
The Yankees got what they had to have from Cole Friday night in what amounted to the opener of a nine-game series against the iron of the AL East — Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays — to determine their playoff fate. Cole is the best they’ve got. But last Sunday’s clunker in the 11-1 loss to Cleveland put a slight dent in his armor leading up to this showdown on Jersey Street. Cole matched a season high in allowing seven earned runs in 5 2⁄3 innings, and it was only the sixth time he’s been tagged for that many during his nine-year career.
The definition of an ace isn’t limited to sustained greatness. It also involves self-correction and making sure those blips don’t turn into trends. The difference for Cole is that he didn’t get a tomato can for a tuneup. Since the Yankees swept the Red Sox in mid-August, their Boston rivals have led MLB in OPS (.839) and are ranked second in batting average (.274) and runs scored (183).
Friday marked the fourth time Cole faced the Red Sox this year, begging the question of how much he needed to change things up to get them off balance.
"Just go out there and be Gerrit Cole" is how Boone explained his ace’s mission before the game.
The Yankees were able to bank on that being enough.