By his own impossibly lofty standard, Gerrit Cole had a rough outing Tuesday in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, his biggest start of the season.
Faulty command was to blame. He issued five walks, a season high. (It also matched the career high he set last June.) He threw only 68 of his 112 pitches (61%) for strikes. (His regular-season strike percentage was more than six percentage points higher.) At one point, Cole lost the strike zone entirely, throwing seven consecutive balls to the bottom two hitters in the New York Yankees' lineup.
Of course, a substandard Gerrit Cole start is still an objectively dominant outing, and so the 29-year-old right-hander still navigated seven scoreless innings Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, propelling his Houston Astros to a 4-1 victory and providing further evidence that he is simply unbeatable right now - a fact that his manager, AJ Hinch, affirmed following his co-ace's sublime performance in Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
"When (we) have Gerrit Cole on the mound, we win," Hinch told reporters after Cole held Tampa Bay to one run while fanning 10 over eight innings en route to a 6-1 victory. "We have. We've kind of proven that. And when he's as dominant as he's been, as prepared as we know he is, it's just an exciting time for our team."
Frankly, the Astros losing a Cole start would feel weird at this point. After all, not since July 12 has Houston lost a game started by Cole, who hasn't himself been saddled with a loss since May 22. And since that inauspicious first start following the All-Star break, Cole has essentially been prime-era Pedro Martinez, authoring a 1.28 ERA while notching 175 strikeouts and allowing just 24 walks and 10 home runs in 112 innings, a span of 16 starts. That stretch, of course, includes three playoff starts - two against the Rays and one against the Yankees - over which he struck out 32 while allowing just one run. Like, total. His postseason ERA sits at 0.40. Moreover, only thrice in the last three months did he fail to record double-digit strikeouts, and only once did he allow multiple home runs. And, at the risk of belaboring the point, the Astros won all 16 of those games. It beggars belief.
If ever there was a game Cole could lose, however, it was, for myriad reasons, Game 3 of the ALCS. First and foremost, he was starting against the Yankees, who boast the game's second-best offense and hit more home runs this year than every team except the Minnesota Twins. Starting in the Bronx didn't make it any easier for Cole, as the Yankees won more than 70 percent of their regular-season home games, going 57-24 before clobbering the Twins in both ALDS games. Beyond that, though, it was just clear early on that he wasn't at his best. He wasn't getting ahead of hitters with his usual consistency nor inducing whiffs at his ridiculous regular-season rate, and he had multiple baserunners reach in four of the first five innings. The 17-minute delay following the conclusion of the fourth inning - the home-plate umpire required attention before ultimately being replaced - presumably didn't help him find his rhythm, either. In any event, for much of the night, Cole looked, if not vulnerable, vaguely human.
|Split||1st-pitch strike %||Whiff %|
|ALCS Game 3||60.0||11.6|
And it didn't matter at all. He weaseled out of each early jam with aplomb, advancing the notion that pitchers as good as Gerrit Cole - which is to say, Gerrit Cole alone - don't really get into jams. (The only truly tense moment of his outing came when Didi Gregorius drove a ball to the warning track with two on and two out in the bottom of the fifth.) Run expectancy matrices can't account for the fact that Cole has four genuinely un-square-up-able offerings, making his margin for error exceeding high. He strikes everyone out because he can, but, as evidenced in Game 3, he doesn't have to - or even locate particularly well - to dominate. Such is life when you throw "laser beams," as one MLB front-office official recently put it, and complement triple-digit heat with three distinct and devastating off-speed offerings.
Expected batting average/slugging percent since July 17
(Statistics courtesy: Baseball Savant)
Cole's supreme understanding of how and when to use each of his pitches also helps him excel even when he's not at his sharpest. His changeup, for instance, has been his least effective pitch throughout this stretch, so he's relying on it less this postseason. From July 17 through the end of the regular season, Cole threw his changeup about nine percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball, but he's thrown the pitch just 18 times over his last three starts, with the changeup accounting for five percent of his postseason offerings. And on Tuesday, in his most important start of 2019 to date, Cole threw just four changeups, his lowest single-game total since Aug. 22. Ultimately, his combination of elite stuff and command with an advanced - and constantly evolving - approach ensures that he gives opposing lineups nightmares even on his off days.
That doesn't bode well for the Yankees, who will face Cole at least once more - either in a Game 7 matchup or potentially on short rest in Game 6 - if they're to advance, and it doesn't bode well for the Washington Nationals. After all, a date with Cole is a scheduled loss right now, and it's hard to win a best-of-seven series with two scheduled losses.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.