Gerrit Cole has a perfect description of the intensity and pressure involved in the nerve-wracking MLB playoffs.
He calls them “heightened-adrenaline” situations. He says the process and preparation for postseason starts are the same as for regular-season ones, but the mind knows those aren’t regular games, and the body reacts accordingly.
Some players fall apart. Some thrive. On Saturday, Cole made it clear to the Astros he is among the latter group.
The righthander, who wasn’t part of the Astros’ World Series club a year ago, took control of the Cleveland Indians early on and dominated their lineup as few in the history of the sport have. He gave up one run, allowed three hits and struck out 12 batters while not issuing any walks in a 3-1 victory at Minute Maid Park.
Cole’s masterful performance — he paid for one mistake, got away with a couple of others — set the tone for the win, which gave the Astros a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
Cole became the second pitcher in major league history to post 12 or more strikeouts without a walk in a playoff game, joining Tom Seaver of the Mets, who 45 years ago to the day struck out 13 Reds without a walk in a Game 1 loss in the 1973 NLCS. Cole was better than Seaver, who gave up two solo home runs in his loss. Cole abused the heart of the Indians’ order, posting two strikeouts apiece of Cleveland’s Nos. 3-4-5 hitters.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona struggled to put into words the subjugation his team had just endured.
“Oh, boy, his fastball was … you know, you could see it by the radar gun … but that sweeping breaking ball … that's a pretty good combination,” he said.
Pretty good indeed. Another notable combination is the Astros’ No. 1 and 2 starters. Justin Verlander and the bullpen allowed two runs on three hits in Friday’s series opener. The six hits in two games are the fewest the Astros have given up in consecutive playoff games.
Great pitching beats good, great and all other kinds of hitting. The Astros set a major league record for strikeouts this season, and led the majors in ERA, opponent batting average and WHIP.
“They want to be perfect,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said of his pitching staff. “They want a shutout every day, and they don’t care who you match up against, teams that can dominate, teams that can’t. They prepare as good as you would expect. They execute at an elite level. They get outs quickly if they need it. They punch guys (out with strikeouts) when they need it. Very few walks, excellent stuff across the board. How many compliments can I give our pitching staff ?”
In this case, there cannot be too many.
The Astros’ trade for Cole in January, gave them an abundance of high-quality pitchers, and according to general manager Jeff Luhnow, virtually assured they would be championship contenders again this season. Cole’s addition to the rotation has played out just as the Astros imagined.
Not that the Astros had any doubts about Cole’s ability. He had a careerhigh 276 strikeouts this season, and according to Elias Sports Bureau, his 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings average at Minute Maid was “the 3rd-highest single-season rate in home games since 1893.”
But the playoffs, those heightenedadrenaline situations, are something different. Three pitches in, Cole gave a semi-nervous turn after Francisco Lindor ripped a fastball to deep left-center field. The next time up, Lindor got hold of a two-out, two-strike offering from Cole and launched a high fly into the right- field seats to give the Indians a 1-0 lead.
But the quality swings against Cole were few. He maintained until the Astros scratched out a couple of runs on a Marwin Gonzalez single in the sixth.
Cole exited after seven innings, as only the second Astros pitcher to strike out at least 12 batters and allow three or fewer hits in a playoff game. Nolan Ryan did so against the Mets in the 1986 NLCS. The Astros lost that game. Thus, they never took control of that memorable series as they have this one.
MLB teams that have taken a 2-0 lead in best-of-five playoff series are 69-10 all-time (87.3 percent). Next on the mound is former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. Then there will be Charlie Morton, who had a career year.
And, of course, should Cleveland win those games, the Indians get to come back to Houston to face Verlander. And some team, at some point this postseason, will see Cole. Hinch said it’s like “copy-and-paste.” “There’s no doubt we expect to be good, but this is a team effort,” Cole said. “So, we expect to keep our team in the ballgame. I don’t know about all the personal accolades or all the dominance or that kind of stuff, but we just want to put up a fight.”
I wouldn’t call striking out 12, with three hits and no walks, while power blasting a fastball that reached 100.1 mph, simply putting up a fight. That’s more like throwing knockout punches, over and over and over.
And the Indians are almost down for the count.
Gerrit Cole turned in a playoff-quality start Saturday, allowing a run on three hits and striking out 12 in seven innings. He threw 98 pitches, walking none.