John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Your mission, Yankees, should you choose to accept it, is now to win three straight games or at best be doomed to facing Gerrit Cole in Game 7, which is pretty much a death sentence these days.
Ok, choose isn't exactly the right word, since the Astros are going to have plenty to say about the Yankees getting on any type of roll in this ALCS, and obviously Justin Verlander would be no picnic in Game 6 as well.
But Cole is on another level right now, and here's the thing: He wasn't particularly sharp even while throwing seven shutout innings in Tuesday's 4-1 win, admittedly struggling with his command until finding a feel for his curve ball around the fifth.
To the point where Cole, after the game, twice said the last words the Yankees want to hear:
"I'm confident I'll be better next time."
He said it so matter-of-factly that you couldn't help thinking it was more belief than bravado.
As it is, Cole has allowed exactly one run in his three postseason starts this October, while racking up 32 strikeouts in 22.2 innings, including seven on Tuesday. Furthermore, he hasn't lost a decision since May 22, and the Astros haven't lost a game he has started since July 12th.
All of which means he looms over this series now the way another Astros' starter, Mike Scott, once did in 1986, when the Mets regarded Game 6 of the NLCS as a must-win because they knew they sure as heck weren't beating Scott if it went to Game 7.
At the moment the Yankees would just love the opportunity to close it out in six, since they trail 2-1 in the series and need to win the next two games to have that chance.
Can they do it?
Well, they better take advantage of the non-Cole/Verlander portion of the series and start hitting. They're likely to get rookie Jose Urquidy in Game 4 on Wednesday, if indeed the game isn't rained out, which would be an upset according to the forecast.
If the game is rained out, the Astros could pitch Zack Greinke on regular rest in Game 4, while Aaron Boone indicated he would counter with Masahiro Tanaka on regular rest as well. From there the intrigue would be in whether the Astros would pitch Verlander on regular rest in Game 5 on Friday.
Considering they'd surely hold Cole to pitch on regular rest in Game 7, that would leave them potentially needing Urquidy in Game 6 in Houston.
Whatever the pitching machinations, the Yankees have some very cold bats right now. In fact, only D.J. LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, and Gleyber Torres are hitting in this series, and that will have to change quickly.
In the Yankee clubhouse you could tell they felt the weight of losing in their own ballpark, where they went 3-0 against these Astros in the 2017 ALCS. Didi Gregorius, who came within maybe five feet of putting the Yankees ahead with a three-run home run to right, took the loss particularly hard.
"I didn't come through when I had the opportunity," he said, "so most of the game was on me."
Actually, it wasn't just Gregorius. Four times the Yankees had a chance to hit with two or more runners on base, in part because of five walks that Cole allowed, and Gregorius' fly ball in the fifth was as close as anyone came to breaking through.
Judge left runners at first and second, striking out chasing a slider in the second inning, and LeMahieu did likewise, flying to center on a something of a mistake-slider.
But make no mistake, Cole bet on being able to get Gregorius out when it counted. He basically admitted to pitching around Torres twice to get to Didi.
"That's pitching," Cole said. "Gleyber has been as hot as anybody. You make a couple of pitches above the zone, and if he doesn't bite, I wasn't going to mess around with him."
With that in mind, maybe Aaron Boone needs to respond by moving Torres, who homered in the eighth inning, up in the lineup, as he did in Games 1 and 2. Only instead of putting him in the No. 3 spot, perhaps he should hit second, with Judge behind him, to force the Astros to give him better pitches to hit.
In any case, you have to believe the Yankees will produce some offense against lesser pitching, even if Greinke has the ability to dominate when he's on his game. But the task is that much harder now, the only margin for error being a Game 7 against Cole.
And As A.J. Hinch said of him afterward, "I think he's the best pitcher in baseball right now. His competition is right next to him in the clubhouse (Verlander). I watch what (Stephen) Strasburg is doing. I see what (Max) Scherzer is doing. And (Jacob) deGrom in this city.
"There are some other big names. But Gerrrit is locked in. And to see him do it on the big stage with the magnitude of this game, it was pretty awesome."
Three in a row? Or Mission Impossible?