My initial thought when Giancarlo Stanton made contact with a first-inning pitch from Max Scherzer, which resulted in a two-run home run and 2-0 Yankees lead: Game over. Sure, it might have been a bit premature to think the Yankees had already clinched a victory in the first few minutes of the first inning of the first game of the season against the defending champion Nationals with the Nationals having yet to bat, but it really wasn’t. Not when you know the Yankees have Gerrit Cole pitching. Thursday night’s season-opening, rain-shortened 4-1 win for the Yankees felt even easier than their 2019 Opening Day win over the eventual 108-loss Orioles felt, and it was all because of the combination of scoring first and having Cole on the mound.
Michael Kay frequently mentions the old adage that a starting pitching will have great stuff in one-third of their starts, bad stuff in one-third of their starts and will have average stuff with the need to grind through the other one-third of their starts. I don’t know that Cole ever truly has “bad” stuff, and the adage clearly didn’t apply to him in 2019 with Houston when he finished the season 16-0, but on Thursday night, Cole was teetering on the border of having bad stuff and needing to grind though the start, and somehow he finished the game by allowing one hit and one earned run over five innings.
For as weird as it was to see Cole wearing the Yankees’ road gray uniform, it was even weirder to see him unable to throw strikes. Cole was missing with every pitch early on, going to a 3-1 count against the Nationals’ leadoff hitter Trea Turner before Turner helped him out by swinging at what would have been ball 4. Cole then fell behind Adam Eaton 2-0, and after evening up the count, Eaton was able to barely stay alive by just making contact on a third straight foul ball. The seventh pitch of the at-bat ended up in the seats for a home run.
For a brief moment, I had flashbacks of CC Sabathia losing in Baltimore on Opening Day 2009 in his Yankees debut before remembering Anthony Rendon is no longer a National, Juan Soto is currently out and Starlin Castro would be batting third in the game. Even though Cole would throw a first-pitch ball to three of the four hitters in the first inning (Castro, like always, swung at the first pitch of his at-bat), he was able to get through the inning and the top of the Nationals lineup (though their “top” was exactly a top) with just the one mistake to Eaton.
In the second, Cole hit Eric Thames with a slider, but after that hit-by-pitch, Cole only allowed one baserunner over the game’s final four innings (a fifth-inning Asdrubal Cabrera walk). Cole never really looked like himself or like the pitcher who became the best pitcher in the world with the Nationals. (Sorry, Mets fans.) Cole’s final line: 5 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HR. That very well could be the worst Cole looks all season and he still managed to allow one hit and one earned run over five innings.
It feels good to once again have a pitcher who, when given any sort of lead, has essentially won the game before the game has ended. The Yankees haven’t had that in more than two years when Luis Severino was the best pitcher in the league for the first half of 2018, and before Severino, the Yankees hadn’t had that since the first four seasons of Sabathia’s Yankees career. But for as good as Severino was that season and has been at times and for as great as Sabathia was from 2009-2012, it feels different with Cole. While, the other two felt like sure-thing wins every fifth day, Cole feels like an automatic win every fifth day, with the game being played out as a formality.
The early lead Cole was given was increased by an Aaron Judge RBI double and a Stanton RBI single. I know there’s a lot being made about Stanton being slimmer in an attempt to stay healthy and increase production, and it showed in the first game of the season, even if it’s the smallest of sample sizes. I want the weight loss and physique adjustment by Stanton to be real and I want him to be the player the Yankees thought they were being handed by the Marlins before 2018, but I was in Toronto on Opening Day 2018 and saw him hit two majestic home runs and got lost in the idea of him being a perennial MVP presence in the middle of the order for the Yankees. I won’t let myself fall for that again, especially given everything that happened with him last season. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic the real Stanton could be on the 2020 Yankees.
The Yankees started the season with a win, Cole dominated with nowhere close to his best stuff, not only did Stanton play, but he provided power and clutch hitting, and even Tyler Wade looked like a major leaguer.
On Thursday night, the Yankees won a game in July, and for the first time in a long time, life felt somewhat normal.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!