After the Houston Astros had finished a 4-1 win over the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday, the Astros convened in the visitors clubhouse to confer honors upon the players of the game. Closer Roberto Osuna presented Gerrit Cole the award for pitcher of the game: a royal blue robe decorated with several fleur-de-lis and a gold collar. It looked like something the wrestler Ric Flair might’ve worn. Cole slipped on the robe and gave a little speech.
Cole had not been at his best. He issued five walks and allowed nine baserunners. But he worked out of trouble each time in seven scoreless innings, and held off the Yankees just long enough for the Astros to take a 2-1 series lead. Jose Altuve homered in the first inning and Josh Reddick homered in the second to give Cole all the offense he needed.
“[Cole] showed everybody what he can do when he’s not ‘perfect,’” Osuna said, using his fingers to signify air quotes. “I told him after the game, ‘You keep doing special things.’ It’s a pleasure, it’s an honor to be his teammate. The history he’s making right now is unbelievable. God bless him. I hope he continues to pitch well forever.”
For the last four-plus months, Cole has been on a run that’s essentially unparalleled. He’s won his last 19 decisions, dating to late May, the longest single-season win streak in MLB history. Now in the postseason, he’s somehow improved his game. In three starts, he’s compiled a 0.40 ERA and struck out 32 batters.
All of baseball has been watching, not only to enjoy Cole’s dominance, but also because he‘ll become a free agent after this season. Pitchers of his caliber don’t hit the open market often, and many teams, perhaps the Dodgers and Angels included, could be vying for his services.
If Cole does cash in, he’ll have the Astros to thank. When Houston acquired him from Pittsburgh after the 2017 season, he’d been considered a good but not elite pitcher. He was a former No. 1 overall pick who hadn’t realized his full potential. The Astros sat him down, walked him through their scouting report on him, and suggested he make adjustments: throw more four-seam fastballs up in the zone, more sliders, fewer two-seamers.
“We tried to simplify things for him,” said Jeff Luhnow, the Astros GM. “The basic philosophy is: Throw your best pitches more, and get more outs using your best stuff.”
It also helped that Houston already had Justin Verlander in the rotation, another right-handed power pitcher who had a similar repertoire. Verlander and Cole talked often about their approach to pitching, setting up hitters and reading their swings.
“All those conversations those guys have at dinner, in the dugout, at the field — it’s just been invaluable,” said Zak Doan, Cole’s longtime private pitching coach.
And the conversations culminated in this season, the best of Cole’s career. He won 20 games, posted a 2.50 ERA and struck out 326, the most in baseball.
His timing could not have been better, considering his impending free agency. Scott Boras, Cole’s agent, compared his situation to that of Max Scherzer, another Boras client who hit the open market five years ago. At the time, Scherzer had a career 3.58 ERA, two All-Star appearances and one Cy Young award. And he was only 30 years old.
The Washington Nationals signed Scherzer to a seven-year, $210-million deal, and he’s rewarded them handsomely. In the last five years, Scherzer has made five All-Star teams and won two more Cy Youngs.
Cole has a 3.22 career ERA, made three All-Star teams and very well could win this year’s AL Cy Young. He’s also a year younger than Scherzer was then.
“Let’s put it this way,” Boras said, “regardless of what any team has, if a team truly says they’re out to win a world championship, there’s a place on every roster for Gerrit Cole.”
After the season ends, perhaps after another championship parade, the Astros will have a decision to make. Luhnow, Houston’s GM, understands that Cole will be in high demand.
“I’m not sure if there’s a better pitcher on the planet right now, except maybe his teammate,” he said, referring to Cole and Verlander. “There are 30 teams that’d love to have [Cole]. There’s going to be some competition. We’ll see what happens.”