Aaron Boone skirted controversy. No surprise. He didn’t pick chopped liver. He picked Gerrit Cole.
That it even was a question to go with Nestor Cortes reflects the kind of season Cortes has offered. Also, all things being equal, you would probably prefer to start a lefty against the Guardians, namely to turn switch-hitter Jose Ramirez to his weaker right side and unplug the might of Cleveland’s second-best power hitter, lefty-swinging Josh Naylor.
But that Cortes was a consideration was also about Cole’s home run penchant and what seems like a greater loss of composure due to on-field issues. Perhaps that led to Cole’s demeanor at a news conference 24 hours before he unleashed the first pitch of this Yankees postseason Tuesday night.
Normally chatty and expressive in conversation, Cole went with clipped, monotone and unflinching — as if he were already locked in for Division Series Game 1 or was trying to steer away from overanalysis of what has become a growing doubt of his ace-hood. After all, the 36 associated with Cortes’ feel-good story is the round he was taken in the 2013 draft. The 36 tied like a heavier and heavier weight to Cole is the sum in millions he is paid annually to front not just a rotation, but a championship.
That was the exchange rate after the 2019 season when the Dodgers bid up Cole just to make sure the Yankees paid the fullest possible and the Angels played along, although they were probably just a hometown distraction rather than a real possibility. The Yankees went to nine years at $324 million to secure Cole to do for them what they once paid less than half — $161 million over seven years — to CC Sabathia to make happen: carry the ball from April through the postseason as a No. 1 stalwart. Sabathia accomplished that in Year 1.
Cole is in Year 3. He finished fourth and second for the AL Cy Young in his first two seasons. He was terrific in the 2020 postseason, taking the ball on three days’ rest and doing well in a Division Series Game 5 decisive loss to the Rays.
In last year’s wild card — after a season interlaced with questions and distractions surrounding the crackdown on sticky substances — Cole gave up two homers and three runs in two innings in losing the wild-card game to the Red Sox. As a Yankees fan growing up, Cole knows the implications of not outdoing Boston in big games.
Symbolic of the dichotomy of this season, Cole set the Yankees strikeout record (257) and also allowed a career-high 33 homers. His ERA-plus of 111 was the same as, among others, Jordan Montgomery, Taijuan Walker and his former Astros teammate, 38-year-old Zack Greinke. Cole vacillated between emphatically brilliant and emotionally brittle. He regularly veered from dominating to dejected within outings.
“Obviously because it’s Gerrit Cole and he came here and signed the huge contract to be the long-term ace of the New York Yankees staff, nothing will ever be necessarily good enough,” Boone said.
That’s spin blather, of course. No one understood better the terms of engagement upon signing the contract than Cole. He all but embraced them. He knew the judgments would be tied to rings and parades. In his robotic turn Monday he wanted nothing to do with the big picture, saying, “I haven’t put much thought into legacy. All my focus is towards preparing to pitch well [in Game 1].”
The chances of someone as thoughtful about his craft and history as Cole has not invested a lot of thought into his legacy resides between zero and nil. Wanting to avoid the subject on the brink of the playoffs, that is understandable. So is Boone’s choice to start him in Game 1. I would have gone with Cortes for the hot hand and left-handedness.
But I get the Cole choice. As Boone cited, Cole’s stuff has been superb this year, including beating Cleveland twice (two runs — both on homers — in 12 ²/₃ innings). That he could be masterful is not some far-fetched notion — this is Gerrit Cole, not Chi Chi Gonzalez.
Also Cole has been here, done that in October as opposed to Cortes, regardless of how unflappable Cortes has been. Cole would be lined up to start Game 4 (if needed) on full rest. The Yankees’ current plan in this round is — if there is a Game 5 — to use Cortes on short rest with normal fourth starter Jameson Taillon being used in relief; perhaps even in high-leverage relief.
“It’s totally special anytime somebody gets selected to lead a team into battle,” Cole said.
Like the last two years, Cole is being handed the ball first by the Yankees. Can he pitch to allow the Yankees to be the team standing last?