Scott Thompson, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The Yankees couldn't come away with another road victory against the Astros on Sunday night, falling 3-2 in extras to tie the series up. Unlike their seven-run splurge in Game 1, Justin Verlander calmed the Yanks' bats down a bit with his stellar arsenal on the mound, allowing only the two-run homer to Aaron Judge that accounted for the team's only runs in the contest.
Now the ALCS heads to the Bronx for the first time, which should work in the Yankees' favor right? Not necessarily with Gerrit Cole on the mound.
If Verlander gave the Yankees problems, Cole could be even worse. He was absolutely electric heading into the postseason, and that only continued in his two starts against the Rays in the ALDS, including the series-clinching Game 5 win.
Over 15.2 innings in that series, Cole gave up only six hits and one earned run, while striking out a total 25 batters -- 15 in Game 2 and 10 in Game 5. That's good for the second most ever in two postseason starts.
That's just about as good as it gets, and Cole will be looking for more of the same at Yankee Stadium.
Cole faced the Yankees way back on April 9 in his third start of the season, which resulted in an Astros win. Cole went seven innings in his start, but the Yankees managed to get three runs off him. Luke Voit, who isn't on the ALCS roster, hit a solo homer to center field in the first. Then, Gary Sanchez, who collected two hits off Cole, had a two-RBI double. Cole would strike out six and walk three before exiting as well. Other than those two, though, players like Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge, and DJ LeMahieu were all hitless on the day.
But that was long ago, eons compared to what Cole has been producing for Houston. When he gets the ball, the Astros have won 15 straight games dating back to July 17. And since Aug. 7, Cole has collected double-digit strikeouts in all 11 starts.
His stuff is as sharp as its ever been in his career, so how can the Yankees get to him and knock him out of the game?
The task will be tremendous, but like facing Verlander, it isn't impossible.
On the stat sheet, Cole's numbers jump off the page from his league-leading 326 strikeouts to even more advanced stats like his fastball and curveball spin rates ranking in the highest percentiles in the MLB. But there is one particular stat from Cole that could be his kryptonite, especially at Yankee Stadium.
If Cole does make a mistake, it's normally in the form of a home run -- something the Yankees did 306 times in the regular season and nine times already in five postseason contests. Cole's home run to fly ball rate this season was 16.9 percent, up a good amount from 10 percent in 2018. His 29 homers allowed in the regular season was also the second-highest total over his young career.
Of course, we have to account for the "juiced baseball" situation in MLB. Though the league denies it, many players have come forth to say the balls feel different, and there have been instances that showed what looked to be fly ball outs were actually round trippers.
That might have changed in the postseason now, as Cardinals manager Mike Shildt admitted St. Louis' front office did an examination of the playoff balls to find that "the ball's not traveling at about a 4.5 foot difference," per Forbes' Ryan Davis.
Juiced balls or not, Yankee Stadium's confines are always a help when it comes to hitting the ball out of the yard. And the Yankees could certainly use that to their advantage if they get the right pitch to swing at.
Looking at Cole's pitch usage, his high-90s fastball is a favorite at 51.6 percent on the year. But it isn't a two-seamer, rather a four-seam fastball with no movement heading to the plate. High spin rate and velocity, though, make it hard to catch up to if you're not guessing it's coming.
Rays' Eric Sogard, who was guessing fastball in his second-inning at-bat in Game 5 of the ALDS, jumped on it and sent it over the right field wall.
Cole's second-favorite pitch in his slider is also a nasty one to barrel up, let alone get a piece of. It has a very tight break and Cole knows how to throw it back door to lefties as well as sweeping it across the plate against righties, with the latter being a problem for hitters like Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion to name a couple.
But Cole isn't immune from throwing those "spinners," or flat sliders, that find the middle of the plate. Judge's homer off Verlander on Sunday night was a hanging slider that he went with to right center field. That's what the Yankees need to take advantage of.
Cole also has a curveball that he throws 15.5 percent of the time, and he'll even mix in his changeup (7.4 percent) and sinker (2.4 percent) every now and then. A five-pitch setup is tough to dissect, especially if Cole's location is on point like it has been recently.
What the Yankees have been doing well thus far in the postseason is working counts, and making pitchers throw the kitchen sink to beat them. That was the mentality against Verlander, and the same should go for Cole on Tuesday.
But being patient at the plate can only do so much. It will make Cole work more, but if the Yankees can't string a few hits together, then it will all be for naught.
Cole is one of baseball's elite rotation arms, and the mistakes will be very few if he is on his game. The Yankees, though, have their home field, a raucous crowd waiting, and the power in their bats to do some damage to Cole for the first time in a long time.
They'll need to punish one mistake or two if that want an edge in Game 3.