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‘He’s so fun to watch’: Yankees’ Cole shows he’s an ace for the ages

Maybe this is one way to put Gerrit Cole in perspective.

In his career, Nolan Ryan, the greatest strikeout pitcher of all time, had eight games in his career where he struck out at least 10 batters and issued no walks. Cole has five such games … in 2021.

Cole’s 1-0 victory Wednesday night in Tampa Bay was a masterpiece for any era: Eight innings, four hits, no runs, no walks, 12 strikeouts, all in a pressure-packed game that was 0-0 until the seventh inning, in a ballpark that hasn’t been kind to the New York Yankees in recent seasons, against a team that has owned the Yankees the past two years, all while a COVID outbreak hit seven members of New York’s coaching and support staff loomed over the team.

“I certainly enjoy playing in meaningful games,” Cole said afterward. “There was a lot going on today and it was certainly a bit challenging to get focused for the game, but once you’re there it’s kind of business as usual, so I try to keep that mind-set all the time and I think it’s helpful when there’s a little bit more on the line.”

Even after beating the Rays on Tuesday, the Yankees were 6-16 against the Rays since 2020, including last year’s loss in the division series. This is the type of game where you need your ace to step up, and Cole did in a big way.

Cole has now struck out 56 batters since his issuing his last walk, tied with a Curt Schilling run in 2002 for the longest stretch since the mound was moved to its current distance in 1893.

“I just want to force the issue. They can always hit it at somebody, I guess,” a decidedly reserved Cole would say, like it’s no big deal to throw 98 and then paint the corners with your off-speed stuff.

Cole’s last walk came on April 12. For the season, he now has 78 strikeouts and three walks. It’s a ratio inconceivable even two decades ago, let alone for a pitcher like Ryan, who had a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.04 and career-best streak of 26 strikeouts without a walk.

Yes, somewhere an old-timer will point out Ryan’s complete games and how this was the first time Cole pitched into the eighth inning all season. Fair enough. The games changes. But it was interesting to see Cole’s performance compared to some of the other low-scoring games on Wednesday. Sixteen other starters on a night of low-scoring baseball allowed zero runs or one run, and 12 pitched fewer than six innings.

In today’s baseball, eight innings is a rare achievement.

“He’s so good and so fun to watch,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s so versatile out there and able to get you out in so many ways. He was very pitch efficient early on there. Any time he did lose leverage in a count and got behind he made big pitches. I think maybe he made one mistake to [Randy] Arozarena for the double, but he leaned on every pitch in different ways.”

Indeed, that element of pitching is what makes Cole so hard to hit, aside from the velocity and the command. He threw 48 four-seam fastballs, 24 sliders, 19 changeups and 15 curveballs. You can’t sit on the fastball — not that you can hit when you do.

The Yankees clinched the series victory, the first in Tampa since May of 2019, but that was hardly on Cole’s mind after the game.

“In a more normal environment, we’d be a little more focused on that stat, but we’re a little preoccupied with a virus running through the clubhouse right now,” he said. “Maybe it kept it simple for us. We just played baseball and tried to stay safe out here.”

Indeed, shortstop Gleyber Torres sat out Wednesday’s game as a precaution after seven members of the staff tested positive for COVID-19. All seven had been vaccinated. Each member of the Yankees’ traveling party has also been tested at least three times since Tuesday, leading to that chaotic pregame atmosphere Cole referenced.

The Yankees are 11-3 since dropping to an end-of-the-world 9-13 on April 26. Cole is leading the way. “He’s an ace. He’s an absolute bulldog,” Boone said.

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