If you were working on the screenplay, you would have Gerrit Cole starting in ALDS Game 5. Starting on short rest for the first time in his career. Starting to get his new team to the ALCS against his old team.
The Yankees got the ball to Cole. They did that by surviving a do-or-die Game 4 thanks to a cast of heroes. Jordan Montgomery provided four quality innings Thursday night, when the Yankees had to be on red alert from the outset just in case the lefty didn’t have it. Chad Green began a strong relay race of bullpen arms followed by Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman. Brett Gardner and DJ LeMahieu had terrific at-bats, Luke Voit and Gleyber Torres went deep, and Kyle Higashioka delivered an insurance run.
Add it all up and the Yankees played a thorough game to beat the Rays 5-1. So now there will be a decisive game Friday between these hostile rivals, both attempting to play against an organization — the Astros — they both hate more than they hate one another.
Houston eliminated Tampa Bay and the Yankees in the playoffs last year. Neither the Rays nor the Yankees were convinced the Astros did that on the level. Both want a shot at vengeance. The chance at that will require a third victory in this ALDS, the great theater that is coming Friday night.
The Astros already have moved on to their fourth straight ALCS by eliminating the Athletics in four games. As opposed to the previous three seasons, this was a surprise. Houston appeared to carry the fallout from its cheating scandal being exposed and penalized. The Astros were 29-31, reaching the playoffs with the worst record among the AL entrants. Their hitters did not hit as they had in the past few years. The 2019 AL Cy Young winner, Justin Verlander, made one start before ultimately needing Tommy John surgery. And the Cy Young runner-up, Cole, exited for $324 million and his childhood favorite team.
Cole threw seven shutout innings in Game 3 last year to help the Astros eliminate the Yankees for the second time in three seasons in the ALCS. The Yankees will always wonder about garbage-can banging in 2017 and body buzzers in 2019. But what was the clearest sign — one that did not need to be stolen — was that the Yankees did not have enough high-end starting pitching. So they took Cole out of Houston. They gave him a record nine-year deal. And they looked forward to having him for just this kind of moment: The ball in his hand and everything on the line.
Cole has never started on short rest, but when asked about that and the righty’s feelings about it, manager Aaron Boone responded his ace said, “Give me the ball.” So he will get the ball and the pressure and the chance for glory and all that comes with this kind of moment when you are The Man.
Boone has tried to play coy about his pitching plans. Apparently, the Yankees manager would rather reveal all his PINs than who might be starting the next game. But from the moment Boone used his controversial combo of Deivi Garcia and J.A. Happ in Game 2, there really was no other option if there were a Game 5. And, really, there was no other option once the Yankees went beyond their comfort zone financially to land what general manager Brian Cashman called his “white whale.”
The idea was to ride Cole in his first year the way the Yankees did CC Sabathia in his first season after signing a record pitching contract. In 2009, the Yankees did not have a suitable fourth starter, so they used Sabathia twice on short rest in that postseason. That was possible because there were two weeks worth of off-days interspersed into the 2009 playoffs. This year is the opposite. There are no off-days in this division series. So Cole is needed because: If not him, who?
Montgomery, the fifth starter, did well in his first outing since Sept. 24, holding the Rays to one run in four innings. Green, who was supposed to be limited in this outing, instead went six up, six down. Britton followed with a dominant five-batter run. Chapman finished off what was five innings of no-hit relief.
Voit homered to lead off the second. Gardner drew a walk after being behind 0-2 following Voit and eventually scored on DJ LeMahieu’s sacrifice fly. Gardner was down 1-2 against lefty Ryan Yarbrough, worked it even, then singled ahead of Torres’ two-run homer in the sixth that made it 4-1. The Yankees had been hitless in 11 at-bats with runners on base before the Torres blast. They were 1-for-15 when Kyle Higashioka nudged an RBI single to left in the eighth.
So it was a group effort to help the Yankees survive Game 4. Get to a Game 5. Get to Cole. This is why he was signed. Away from the Astros. Now can Cole get the Yankees to the Astros again?