For the Red Sox, participation in a one-game, winner-take-all Wild Card Game represents the potential payoff for a regular season that has vastly exceeded expectations. Yet Friday night offered a reminder that such a prize, if attained, nevertheless comes with considerable peril.
In a potential preview of the AL wild-card matchup, the Yankees blasted the Red Sox, 8-3. Nate Eovaldi could not continue his considerable record of success against his former team, getting scorched for seven runs while recording just eight outs.
It happens. Eovaldi likely remains the Red Sox’ best option against the Yankees, particularly given the vulnerability of Chris Sale thus far this year (.284 average, .352 OBP, .448 slugging mark) against righthanded hitters.
More ominous for the Sox than the egg laid by Eovaldi was the formidable mountain who took the mound against him. Gerrit Cole looms as an imposing figure should the Red Sox and Yankees meet again in the Wild Card Game.
“He’s a true ace. There’s no doubt about it,” said Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo. “If there’s a one-game playoff, he’s getting [the ball].”
While Cole’s night was not one of singular dominance, the righthander looked sufficiently overpowering through most of his start to offer a reminder of the tall task that awaits teams hoping to advance past the wild-card round in October.
Cole (16-8, 3.08 ERA) carried a no-hitter through 3⅔ innings and a two-hit shutout through five. In his first two times through the Red Sox order, Cole showed an electric arsenal that allowed him to mow through his opponents. His 95-100-m.p.h. fastball had life at the top of the zone, he got swings-and-misses against the two breaking balls he spun off it, and his changeup kept Red Sox lefties lunging through five innings.
To that point, he looked like the pitcher with one of the more impressive postseason résumés in baseball. Cole has made 13 career postseason starts. His teams have won eight of those, with the righthander forging a 2.68 ERA and averaging more than six innings per outing.
In the last two postseasons, he’s been even better, with a 2.13 ERA and 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings over eight starts. His teams (the Astros in 2019, the Yankees in 2020) are 6-2 in those contests.
Cole, coming off one of his worst starts of the season (a seven-run yield over 5⅔ innings against Cleveland), drew on that big-game history on Friday night.
“I definitely mentally leaned on some of those experiences and and mentally leaned on the process that I have to try to get rid of the last start to get prepared to bring out the best of this start,” said Cole. “I was successful in that regard.”
To be sure, the Sox are not awed by Cole. They have enough of a track record of success against him — including wins in two of his four starts against them this year and a victory at Fenway in Game 2 of the 2018 ALCS against the Astros — to maintain a sense of possibility against the 31-year-old.
And even on Friday, the Sox eventually got to Cole. Kiké Hernández and Kyle Schwarber opened the sixth inning with singles and, after a Xander Bogaerts strikeout, Rafael Devers golfed a changeup for a three-run homer to right. He finished having allowed three runs on five hits and three walks in six innings. Cole, who typically collects strikeouts in piles, had a modest six punchouts against the Sox.
The task of getting to Cole is not impossible. But it nonetheless offers an extreme level of difficulty – a notion that did not diminish on Friday.
“He was good as always,” said Sox manager Alex Cora. “We put pressure [on him] at one point, we scored three runs, his pitch count was up to 95, [but] … it’s a grind with him. He knows it too with us. We’re going to battle with him.”
The road would not get much easier for the Sox if they end up having to face the Blue Jays — a team that could feature Robbie Ray, generally considered alongside Cole as a frontrunner for the AL Cy Young Award — on the mound for a one-game winner-take-all.
All of this is somewhat novel to the Red Sox. Since the introduction of the Wild Card Game in 2012, the Sox have qualified for the playoffs four times — each as the AL. East winner. The Sox have never stared down the possibility of a playoff run that could be as brief as one game.
Cole’s first career victory at Fenway Park on Friday served to define just how fleeting the wild-card opportunity can be. A single night of brilliance by an ace can represent a ticket to advance in October — as well as a dead-end for an opponent’s hopes. For the Yankees, there is comfort and promise in that notion.
“He’s our ace. He’s our horse,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “There’s a very short list of people who you’d rather have the ball.”