NEW YORK -- Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole could have melted down. In the third inning of Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Tuesday, Cole gave up a solo home run to Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan -- who hit six in the regular season -- before loading the bases by hitting shortstop Amed Rosario with a pitch, giving up a double to slugger Jose Ramirez and allowing first baseman Josh Naylor to reach first on a fielder's choice with just one out recorded in the inning.
The inning provided every ingredient for the game to get out of hand really quickly. With the Yankees down a run, Cole faced a fork in the road. Cleveland could put the game out of reach with a handful of swings and drive the Yankees ace out of the game in his first playoff start in the Bronx, or he could help New York lock down the first game of the ALDS.
As he stood on the mound with the bases juiced, Cole stepped back and tried to visualize the situations during the season when runners reached base. He tried to lean on how he reacted in those situations while emptying his mind of the high stakes of playoff baseball.
"I prepared myself for traffic. I certainly had quite a bit of it, too many experiences with traffic this year," Cole said. "You do what you normally do. We were really clear on what pitches we wanted to execute in those situations."
Those pitches were the curveball and slider, as Cole got Oscar Gonzalez to ground into a force out on a 88.4 mph slider before getting Andres Gimenez to strike out on a nasty 88.4 mph slider in an at-bat that featured just one fastball with three sliders and two curveballs. The moment proved crucial in keeping the Cleveland offense at bay as New York cruised to a 4-1 victory.
"He executed, and that may be the at-bat of the game right there," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "He was in some trouble there and kept making pitches."
The Yankees' offense slowly started to come through in the ensuing innings. Outfielder Harrison Bader hit a solo home run to tie the score 1-1 in the bottom of the third before catcher Jose Trevino knocked in shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa on a sacrifice fly in the fifth for the go-ahead run. First baseman Anthony Rizzo provided some cushion in the sixth inning with a two-run homer, scoring Aaron Judge.
But all of it tied back to Cole getting out of the third-inning jam.
"That's the type of stuff that fuels the offense," Bader said. "You hate to put more pressure on the starting pitching, but that is the reality of it and that is why those guys get paid the way they do because of the energy and ability to lock in and make big pitches in big sequences, which is exactly what he did."
The Guardians made Cole work hard through the first three innings, forcing the Yankees ace to throw 62 pitches through three innings. But getting out of the bases-loaded jam in the third inning helped Cole settle down, as he threw just eight pitches in the fourth, 13 in the fifth, 13 in the sixth and four more in the seventh, recording one out and allowing a single to Myles Straw before Boone pulled the plug on the righty's evening.
Throughout the outing, Cole mixed up his repertoire to keep the Guardians off balance, throwing 27.5% fastballs, 27.9% sinkers, 12.6% cutters, 13% sliders and 13.4% change-ups.
"He can have overwhelming stuff," Guardians manager Terry Francona said. "He starts to speed you up and then he spins it. It can get tough."
Cole exited the game in the seventh inning to an ovation from the sold-out crowd of 47,807 at Yankee Stadium, waving to the fans. As he looked out into the crowd before descending down the dugout steps, Cole took a moment to absorb it all.
As a childhood Yankees fan growing up in Southern California, Cole dreamed of moments like Tuesday night, which also was his dad Mark's birthday.
"It was very special for me," Cole said before pausing to catch his emotions. "It was very special. The game's not over, left with traffic. It's not the most comfortable time to acknowledge the crowd, but I certainly felt it and appreciate it. I thought they were in every pitch tonight, and what a wonderful experience to have them behind us."