The overpowering art of the Astros’ Gerrit Cole

HOUSTON — The scariest thing about Gerrit Cole is not his fastball, which is saying something, seeing as the video ribbon at Minute Maid Park spent the eighth inning in Game 2 of the American League Division Series flashing three digits. It is not his slider, either, or his dastardly curveball, which bites with the mercilessness of a mosquito in these parts, or even his Houdini changeup.

“His biggest strength,” Houston Astros manager AJ Hinch said, “is his mind.”

On Saturday, Hinch basked in the afterglow of Cole’s latest tour de force, a 15-strikeout humbling of the Tampa Bay Rays in a 3-1 victory that staked the Astros to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series in the MLB playoffs. But really, there is no shame in it for the Rays. This is what Cole does, who he is, how he operates — a mind among boys.

It is easy to fixate on the pitches that come from Cole’s right hand because of what they do in both action and result. They move so explicitly they should be rated TV-MA. They cause the kinds of swing-and-misses — 33 on Saturday, his career best among a number of other career bests, including the 118 pitches he threw — that leave hitters mumbling to themselves. They also do not exist in a vacuum.

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Cole’s excellence germinates from purpose, and his purpose sprouts from curiosity and his curiosity is a function of wanting to be excellent — and it’s all one big loop that marries the physical with the mental and breeds a super-pitcher. On talent alone, Cole could be very good, and on guile alone, Cole could be very good. With both, he borders on unhittable, which the Rays learned over 7⅔ innings in Game 2.

All nine Rays hitters struck out at least once. Five of the punchouts came on fastballs, five on sliders and five on curveballs. It was artistry, but it didn’t seem that way, because the title of “artist” is so often ceded to pitchers without Cole’s repertoire. Do not fall prey to that. This is what it looks like when the tenets of modern pitching theory and one man’s physical gifts smash together like the Big Bang and make a whole new world.

Cole is often asked what allows him to throw a 100 mph fastball late in games, as he did on his 116th pitch, and his answer isn’t meant to be flip: “God,” he said, and, well, sure, that is as good an answer as any, seeing as he has been able to do this since he was a teenager. That was a dozen years ago. Now 29, Cole has spent thousands of hours talking about pitching, learning about pitching, studying pitching, mastering pitching so as not to take that which God or DNA or whatever it was gave him and let even an ounce of it go to waste.

On the mound, Cole is a con man. He relishes playing the long game. He throws a pitch in the second inning to set up one in the seventh. He realizes that the superiority of his pitches affords him the ability to toy with hitters’ minds, to bait them so he can switch them. His favorite pitch of the night was rather nondescript: a 99 mph 1-1 fastball in Ji-Man Choi’s second at-bat. Choi swung through it.

“I felt like it surprised him a bit,” Cole said. “I felt like it bought us some leverage throughout the zone.”

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When Hinch is talking about Cole’s mind, this is what he means. Cole struck out Choi swinging on a high outside fastball in his first at-bat. He could have recognized that as a vulnerability and pounded it again. But Cole believed Choi might be looking for that pitch. Going back inside — challenging him on a pitch already difficult for left-handers to hit, in a moment when Choi presumably wouldn’t be looking there — illustrates the nexus of might and mind.

“You can never underestimate the 95 to 100 [velocity], the power that comes with his game, the pure dominance,” Hinch said. “That’s what people think of when they think big, power, physical, ace, starter. He goes to areas of the strike zone whenever he needs to, whenever he wants to, whenever he sees something. That’s creative. When we talk about creative, we often talk about guys that don’t have elite stuff like this. He can execute virtually any game plan for a reason.

“When you see five punchouts on the fastball, five punchouts on the breaking ball chase, five punchouts on the hard slider — that is pure dominance across the board. Very rarely in the big leagues can you go to the same area at-bat after at-bat after at-bat. He pitches deep enough into games to get to face these guys three, sometimes four times. His mind and his ability to trust his adjustments set him apart.”

Never did the Rays figure out Cole because never did he offer them a discernible pattern to do so. It wasn’t just the 5-5-5 breakdown among his three strikeout pitches. It also was how cunning he was in ending at-bats with them. In order, the strikeouts came on: curve, fastball, slider, curve, slider, curve, fastball, slider, fastball, curve, fastball, slider, fastball, curve, slider. Fifteen punchouts, 14 swinging, never two in a row on the same pitch.

Sometimes there will be nights when Cole will rely on one pitch more than another. Nights such as Saturday, when everything worked, are to be savored. Cole generated 14 swing-and-misses with his fastball, 10 with his curve (out of 19 curves thrown), eight on the slider and one on the changeup, which he threw sparingly because he didn’t really need it.

“He was majestic,” Rays shortstop Willy Adames said. And that was a perfect way to put it: Gerrit Cole, at his apex, is almost ethereal, a see-it-to-believe-it experience, Bigfoot riding a unicorn. If he is this — and if his rotation mate and Cy Young competition Justin Verlander is what he was in Game 1 — keeping the Astros from the World Series will take a feat of strength seen only on Festivus.

In spring training this year, as Cole prepared for the season, he set a goal for his first few starts: no bad reps. A bad rep is a changeup that doesn’t start in the strike zone or a breaking ball accidentally loosed toward a hitter’s head or a fastball spiked 55 feet. It was the sort of pragmatic approach a pitcher with full control of his abilities would take — laser-focused, purpose-oriented.

It also was the sort of thing intended for the playoffs, when one bad pitch can end a season. Cole had a couple: the double he surrendered in the eighth, the walk that followed and finished his night.

Neither turned into runs, and as he walked off the field to a raucous ovation, Gerrit Cole, at the beginning of the biggest October of his life, knew he had given the Rays everything his arm had. Even scarier, he had given them a piece of his mind too.

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