The night was over and the deed was done, and Gerrit Cole was doing what the very best of his profession are forced to do on nights that go terribly sideways: He was owning up.
He’d been terrible, of course, and there was no escaping it. In a do-or-die game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park — the very definition of earning your captain’s bars as a Yankee — he’d thrown 50 pitches and recorded only six outs.
It was already 3-0 when Aaron Boone came to get him, and while he probably wanted to make a case for himself, he knew this was no time for debate. He’d handed the ball to Boone and taken the long walk back to the third-base dugout. Now, hours later, he was wearing all of that.
“This is the worst feeling in the world,” Cole said, “and it happens to 29 teams every year, going home early and not achieving your ultimate goal. So focusing on the good that maybe put us in this opportunity or the good that you did in the regular season just doesn’t really — there’s just really nothing that you can do to make it feel any better.
“You can’t be afraid of this feeling. You’ve got to through it inevitably to get that championship like you said, but there’s nothing that really makes you feel any better.”
The good news is, Cole plays for the Yankees and so it is a virtual lock he will have other October opportunities, many of them, to allow Tuesday’s travesty to vaporize into the fog of time. For Cole, this can really go one of two ways. He can allow one bad night to define him — not likely, given his makeup. Or he can bide his time and wait to deliver redemption.
It is worth remembering that the man who became the most feared postseason assassin in baseball history — Mariano Rivera — had what could have been a damaging, defining moment early in his reign as the Yankees closer. That was Oct. 5, 1997, Game 4 of the ALDS, eighth inning. The Yankees led the Indians, 2-1 in runs and 2-1 in games.
Rivera, an All-Star in his first year as the Yankees’ closer, was asked to get six outs and vault the Yankees into the ALCS. He got two. Then Sandy Alomar Jr. reached out, poked a fastball over the wall in right field at Jacobs Field, just beyond Paul O’Neill’s reach. The Indians would win Game 4 an inning later. They’d win Game 5 the next night.
“It wasn’t a good pitch,” Rivera, then 27 years old, lamented after. “It was over the plate. He was able to get good wood on it. This is tough, but I can’t do anything about it now. It’s already done.”
It was a classic closer’s response, pledging to move along quickly, and Rivera did just that. Over his next 23 postseason games, covering three years, he would save 16 games, allow 18 hits in 33 ¹/₃ innings and compile an ERA of … 0.00. In the 61 playoff games he pitched in after Alomar took him out, his ERA was 0.92.
He wasn’t perfect. But he was damn close. And he made sure he was so good his faults became footnotes, not failures.
There is another extreme, too. For that, we can cite Jeurys Familia, who by October of 2015 had become a confident, lights-out closer with three unhittable pitches that made him a late-inning scourge. Then he quick-pitched Alex Gordon two outs shy of closing out Game 1 of the World Series in Kansas City. Gordon took him out. The Royals won the game and the series.
“You have to have a short memory,” Familia said at Kauffman Stadium that night. “I’m already ready to take the ball again.”
And Familia … well, he hasn’t had near the opportunity for playoff redemption Rivera had, or that Cole is likely to have. But the next year he gave up a season-ending, three-run home run to the Giants’ Conor Gillaspie in the NL wild-card game. And his second tour with the Mets has been a lowlight reel of horribly timed meltdowns.
The guess is Cole is closer to the good extreme than the bad one. He showed an awful lot standing up and owning his failure Tuesday night. He will show more when — if — he lets his performance bury that moment in the weeds of ancient history.
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