October 8, 2020 | 11:10pm | Updated October 8, 2020 | 11:54pm
So if you were working on the screenplay, you would have Gerrit Cole starting in Division Series Game 5. On short rest for the first time in his career. To get his new team to the ALCS against his old team.
You would put a movie hero line into the script like, “Just give me the ball.” That is what Aaron Boone said his ace offered when pitching on three days’ rest was broached. And Cole himself would look into the Zoom camera and deliver, “No one needed to tell me that” when asked if he was informed to prepare for Game 5 after starting the opener.
Nope. It was understood. This is why he is here. To be on the mound if it is at all possible in the most substantial spots. It is possible in Game 5. It is substantial. So the ball goes to Cole. And so does his first moment to determine his arc in pinstripes. He is here to win this game and there will be legacy implications — fair or not — on Oct. 9, 2020, in the first season of Cole’s nine-year contract.
“To be able to hand the ball to probably the best pitcher in the game, there is some comfort in that,” Boone said. “I am excited to see him go compete, like he always does.”
To get their season to their biggest star, the Yankees needed an effort from an entire cast to earn a 5-1 victory over the Rays in a win-or-winter Game 4.
Jordan Montgomery, who had not pitched since Sept. 24, provided four quality innings Thursday night when the Yanks had to be on red alert from the outset just in case the lefty didn’t have it. Chad Green, who was expected to be limited in this game, overwhelmed for two innings to begin a chain with Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman of five innings of no-hit relief. Brett Gardner and DJ LeMahieu had sensational at-bats that led to runs. Luke Voit and Gleyber Torres went deep. Kyle Higashioka, the No. 1 catcher now regardless of what Boone says, saved runs on defense by blocking a series of Montgomery breaking balls in the dirt with a runner on third and delivered an insurance run in the eighth inning.
Add it all up and the Yankees forced a decisive game Friday between these hostile rivals to try to get to play an organization that both hate more: the Astros.
Houston eliminated Tampa Bay and New York in the playoffs last year and neither the Rays nor 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 Division Series and the drama will be high because so much is on the line and the two teams don’t like each other and the Rays are countering Cole on three days’ rest with Tyler Glasnow on two days’ rest and because one of these teams will get another shot at Houston.
The Astros already have moved on to their fourth straight ALCS by eliminating the A’s in four Division Series games. As opposed to the previous three ALCS trips, 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 like 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 runner-up, Cole, exited for $324 million and his childhood 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 Yanks 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. Gave him a record nine-year deal. And looked forward to have him for just this kind of moment. The ball in his hand and everything on the line.
“It is a special opportunity,” Cole said.
Boone has tried to play coy about his pitching plans. Apparently, the Yankee manager would rather reveal all his PIN codes 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 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 used Sabathia twice on short rest in that postseason en route to the Yankees’ last title. 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?
“It is what it is,” Cole said. “You have to go do your job. When the lights are turned on whether it is three, four, five, six or seven days’ [rest], you have to do the job.”
The job is to get the Yankees to a seven-game series vs. his old squad. He wanted the ball. He gets it. The season and a piece of his Yankee legacy in Cole’s right hand Friday night.