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It is five games. It is five games in which Gerrit Cole has started twice. It is five games, the last two against the Orioles, whose only reason for existence might be to pump up the Yankees’ confidence and record.
But have you noticed that through five games the Yankees pitching has been brilliant?
Yankees hurlers would have a 25-inning scoreless streak as you read this sentence if they had a shortstop. But they have Gleyber Torres, who defensively leads the majors in nonchalance. He indifferently turned what should have been the final out of the game, a routine grounder, into a Ryan Mountcastle infield “single.” Rio Ruiz followed with a two-run homer off Lucas Luetge and rather than beat the Orioles 7-0 for a second straight game the Yankees won 7-2.
Still, even with the gifted two runs, the Yankees’ ERA through five games is 1.76. The batting average against is .190. Pretty much every pitcher aside from Domingo German has performed well and on Tuesday night Cole was as good as he could be, which means better than every other starter on the planet not named Jacob deGrom.
“Everything was working for him,” Kyle Higashioka said.
Cole struck out 13 over seven shutout innings as the Yanks beat the Orioles for a 12th consecutive time in The Bronx and for the 26th time in the last 30 games overall. The righty was precise and overpowering with his fastball, topping out in triple digits. His slider was a knockout punch. And his growing confidence in and usage of his changeup has provided more weaponry, especially against lefty hitters.
Yet, the question for the 2021 Yankees was never going to be about the ace. The worry was the rest of the rotation and a bullpen that began the year with Zack Britton and Justin Wilson injured. But through five games — again just five games — the staff has not allowed more than three runs in a game.
“I think we have good pitchers, first and foremost,” Aaron Boone said. “I felt that going into spring training. I felt our 13-20 competing for the final spots on a roster were definitely as deep as since I have been here. I feel like all our guys had good strong springs and built up well. And I feel like across the board they are throwing well.”
One inspiration of spring was Jameson Taillon, currently the only member of the Yankee opening 26-man roster not to play. That changes Wednesday when the 29-year-old takes the ball in a game that counts for the first time in 707 days; for the first time since his second Tommy John surgery.
So much of this Yankees season is about what the non-Cole starters can offer, especially the quartet that has hardly pitched the last two years: Taillon, German, Corey Kluber and eventually, the Yankees hope, Luis Severino. Boone called it, “The million dollar question throughout Major League Baseball this year.” Who can stay healthy and endure after a shortened or absent workload in the pandemic 2020 60-game season. For the Yanks, the mystery deepens due to the lack of innings for two years for so many key hurlers.
The mystery for Taillon goes a little further — is there still a substantial career for him? Once good enough to be the second pick in the 2010 draft, Taillon dreamed of accumulating 100 WAR (10 pitchers ever have done that) and winning 20 games 15 straight years. But he had Tommy John surgery, then testicular cancer and then needed a second Tommy John surgery.
That last one came after the Pirates had traded their ace following the 2018 season. That was Cole. It was going to be Taillon’s turn to be the No. 1 in 2019. But he made just seven starts. He tried to avoid the second surgery, knowing the odds of returning from a repeat procedure. He called that the “lowest point” of his career.
Which brings greater resonance and meaning to what arrives Wednesday.
“More than anything, I think this is going to sound cheesy, I am excited to be part of the Yankees and go out onto the Yankee Stadium mound and get to work,” Taillon said. “I am ready to put the rehab in the past. I am ready to contribute to this team and compete and take the ball every fifth day.”
What he wants to be these days is Charlie Morton. Taillon participated in spring training with Morton when both were Pirates and Morton was still a frustration of injuries and talent unfulfilled. But over the last five years, beginning with his age-33 season, Morton has been an elite starter, learning to better prepare his body and use his stuff. At 29, Taillon said, “I do feel like there is a lot ahead of me.”
One hundred WAR might be gone. But Taillon will try to keep the Yankees’ good pitching vibes going and take Step 1 again to prove there is a substantial career still possible.
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