And it was there, in Tuesday’s fifth inning, that Game 3 of the American League Championship Series reached its inflection point. The Yankees, per their protocol, went to their bullpen, a decision that started the cascade of moves that would bury them two innings later. The Astros, per their protocol, stayed with their starter in the fifth, stayed with him in the sixth and stayed with him in the seventh — and were rewarded for it.
Of course, any team, even the quick-trigger Yankees, might stay with its starter when its starter is Gerrit Cole.
With Cole delivering seven scoreless innings, even on a night when he was at less than his best, the Astros claimed a 4-1 victory that put them ahead 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. Cole, perhaps the most valuable weapon in these entire playoffs, still hasn’t been beaten since May 22, and in three starts this postseason he is 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA.
The preparation for Wednesday night’s scheduled Game 4 is complicated by a terrible forecast that calls for rain, with 100 percent certainty, for much of the night. If the game is rained out, Games 4 and 5 would be Thursday and Friday, and the teams would lose the travel day currently scheduled for Friday. Game 6, if necessary, would be Saturday in Houston.
Completing seven innings Tuesday required Cole to pitch around nine base runners, five of whom reached by walks, tying his career high. And it included one particularly harrowing moment in that pivotal fifth inning, when, with two on and two outs and the Astros leading by two, a long drive to right off the bat of Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius — which would have put the Yankees ahead had it sailed into the seats — instead died at the wall into the glove of right fielder Josh Reddick.
“We had a ton of opportunities,” Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks said. “It’s definitely frustrating. We had opportunities to get to [Cole], and we weren’t able to do it. We’re a team that usually takes care of that.”
The Astros got half of their offense from solo home runs by José Altuve in the first and Reddick in the second, both off Yankees starter Luis Severino. And they got the other half from a pair of runs in the seventh — an inning that demonstrated the risks and limitations of the Yankees’ bullpen-focused blueprint.
That half-inning began with Yankees right-hander Adam Ottavino, New York’s third reliever of the night, on the mound. But his stint lasted only two batters, a walk and a hit-and-run single. It was enough to open the door for the Astros, who eventually scored their runs on a wild pitch by Yankees left-hander Zack Britton and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Yuli Gurriel.
Ottavino, one of the Yankees’ most indispensable relievers during the regular season, has lost his way at a terrible time, with nine of the 16 batters he has faced in these playoffs reaching base. And with the way Yankees Manager Aaron Boone continues to trust him, he may be the dreaded weak link that can bring down the Yankees’ entire bullpen game plan this postseason. He left the mound Tuesday, having put two batters on base and retired none, to a chorus of boos from the crowd of 48,998.
“I want to be out there,” Ottavino said. “I think I’ll get another opportunity. I’m not going to let this define me. I’m not going to dwell on one pitch here or there.”
Cole, meanwhile, jogged out to the Yankee Stadium mound for the bottom half of each inning and strolled back in each time he had collected his three outs, his gait so languid he was occasionally beaten to his dugout by one of his outfielders. It was as if he couldn’t wait to pitch and dreaded having to stop.
But the many lineups Cole eviscerated during his historic 2019 season might have killed to have faced this version of him. It was a rare night where he seemed beatable, with the Yankees putting multiple batters on base in four of his first five innings.
Though Cole’s velocity was as stout as ever, with fastballs that touched triple digits, it was the rare start in which he did not seem completely overpowering. The major league leader in strikeouts, Cole didn’t fan a single Yankees hitter his first time through their lineup.
“Tonight, fastball command was a bit of a struggle,” Cole said. “I don’t have a reason for that right now, but I know it will be better next time.”
Tuesday’s pivotal fifth inning began with confusion, an empty field and an unfortunate development, as home plate umpire Jeff Nelson, who had been hit in the mask by a foul tip an inning earlier, had to leave the game with a concussion. Severino sat through an 18-minute delay before the game resumed in the fifth, with second base umpire Kerwin Danley moving behind the plate.
Sending Severino out for the fifth in the first place, against the Astros’ Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters, was a rare show of faith by Boone, who hadn’t allowed one of his starters to face this part of an opponent’s lineup for a third time all postseason. Severino lasted only three batters, and right-hander Chad Green had to come in to clean up a two-on, one-out mess.
Cole, meanwhile, had upward of a 30-minute break between the bottom halves of the fourth and fifth innings, thanks to the umpiring change, and he narrowly avoided — by a few rotations of Gregorius’s deep flyball that died at the right field wall — giving up the Astros’ two-run lead.
At that point, the leash got shorter, even with the Astros, even with Cole. His pitch count was climbing. The bullpen was heating up. But Cole got better. He retired the next six batters in order, including four by strikeout, to carry the lead through the seventh inning. Relievers Joe Smith, Will Harris and Roberto Osuna carried the lead home from there.
“He’s exceptional,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said of Cole. “And he gets better and better and better [as the game wears on]. . . . That’s old school, right? We like when the starter gets to pitch a little bit. We have some of the best.”
The events of the next few days will dictate whether Cole’s next start is in Game 7 of the ALCS, Game 1 or 2 of the World Series or Opening Day 2020 for whichever team hands the pending free agent the $250 million or so it might take to sign him.
But if this was Cole’s “bad” outing — the one where he was at less than his best and as beatable as he will ever be — woe be the team that faces him next.