Stefano Fusaro at ESPN wrote about the historical significance of Gerrit Cole’s dominant Game 2 performance against the Cleveland Indians on Saturday, in which he struck out 12 batters and walked none. As far as postseason starts go, the only other pitcher to post that many strikeouts with zero walks EVER was Tom Seaver (13K, 0BB)—in the 1973 National League Championship Series—and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Slight bias here, but what Cole accomplished has only been done once in a postseason game, and while I don’t want to diminish Seaver whatsoever, Cole didn’t have the benefit of facing the opposing pitcher each time through the lineup.
Funny thing is, Cole has been so good this season it almost seems like his everyday brilliance has become commonplace. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time this season we saw a 12-strikeout, no-walk performance from Cole (April 29 against Oakland). In his following start, Cole struck out 16 batters and walked one in what registered as the highest game score of the year (better than even Sean Manaea’s no-hitter against Boston). Obviously, the addition of Cole has been a key ingredient in the Astros’ recipe for success in 2018.
Fusaro did a nice job framing Cole’s performance in an Astros context, which begs the question: How does Cole’s Game 2 start rate in Houston baseball lore?
There are a few different factors to contemplate when considering where Cole’s start ranks. It was his playoff debut in an Astros uniform, so there were likely a few jitters rumbling. As mentioned, we have seen several great starts from Cole this season and he has been in the playoffs before, but the first postseason game with a new team—especially one with serious and legitimate expectations—can be overwhelming. Didn’t matter; Cole was in control from the start. He needed only 7 pitches to get through the first inning and retired 13 of 14 hitters after allowing Francisco Lindor’s solo homer in the third inning, the only run Cleveland scored.
Another variable is the context surrounding Cole’s outing, things like the intensity of the moment and the urgency of the situation. The Astros had a 1-0 cushion in the series coming into Game 2, but certainly didn’t want to relinquish homefield advantage heading back to Cleveland, even if this is one of the greatest road teams of all-time. Although it was not an elimination or potential series-clinching game, it is October and Cole’s outing ultimately supplied the Astros with a commanding lead heading to Cleveland. And it sure did inject some confidence into the Astros’ outlook for the rest of the postseason, for me at least.
Finally, as bilbos wrote around this time last year, an important component of a historic pitching performance is that the starter goes deep into the game and creates a lot of swing-and-miss action. Cole’s 12 strikeouts were the third-most by an Astros pitcher in the team’s playoff history, and he only went seven innings. The two pitchers with more strikeouts in an Astros postseason game went nine innings apiece (Mike Scott 14K in 1986 NLCS; Justin Verlander 13K in 2017 ALCS). Cole also generated 33 swinging strikes, eight more than Verlander’s legendary 2017 ALCS start (unfortunately, the number of swinging strikes was unavailable for Scott’s outing). Cole made the Indians’ hitters look foolish repeatedly, and Cleveland was surely motivated to improve upon its hitting performance from Game 1.
Although Cole’s Game 2 performance is probably not the best playoff outing we’ve ever seen from an Astros starter, it’s likely in the Top 10. Then again, it may not even be Cole’s best start since joining Houston. What do you think? Was it the best start of Cole’s tenure with the Astros, the best of his career so far, and/or a Top 10 Houston playoff performance? Where does it rank in Houston baseball lore for you?