Gerrit Cole is the perfect elixir for stressed Yankees

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For Gerrit Cole, the game itself served as a stress reliever of sorts.

For his teammates? That role was played by Cole himself.

If the Yankees ace has committed very few missteps since putting on the pinstripes, Wednesday night at Tropicana Field might have been his best step yet. With his club fighting the oddest COVID-19 outbreak his sport has experienced, Cole shoved his way to a dominant, 1-0 victory over the Rays, extending the Yankees’ winning streak to four games and ending a streak of series losses to Tampa Bay, including last year’s American League Division Series, at seven.

Over eight brilliant innings, Cole allowed just four hits, none in four shots with runners in scoring position, while walking none and striking out 12. He has registered an amazing 56 Ks since his last walk, a free pass to the Blue Jays’ Yuli Gurriel Jr. on April 12.

“He is an absolute bulldog,” Cole’s manager Aaron Boone said. “I think he lives for pitching when it’s tough in the biggest of games, and obviously in a 1-0 game, we needed all of it.”

“That’s a really nice compliment,” replied Cole, who lowered his ERA to a ridiculous 1.37. “I certainly enjoy playing meaningful games. There was a lot going on today, and it was a bit challenging to get focused for the game. But once you’re there, it’s kind of business as usual.”

Business as usual amid this pinstriped winning streak has meant superb pitching teamed with just enough offense — Aaron Hicks’ seventh-inning sacrifice fly against Jeffrey Springs allowed Aaron Judge, who knocked three singles, to tag and score from home, breaking the scoreless tie — and then the Yankees mixed a pandemic into that business.

A stunning seven staff members, all of them purportedly recipients of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, tested positive for the disease, while shortstop Gleyber Torres stayed away from the ballpark due to inconclusive results. (The Yankees, confident that Torres would be cleared shortly, disclosed that he dealt with COVID during the offseason.)

It’s nutty and unnerving, and before the game, Thursday night’s starter Jameson Taillon acknowledged, “I thought we were out of the woods, but here we are.” The encouraging news, for both the Yankees and believers in science, was that only third base coach Phil Nevin felt any symptoms, the conditions of the other six alleviated by having received their shots.

Cole, active in the MLB Players Association, helped keep the peace these past couple of days. Yet at a certain point Wednesday afternoon, he had to defer to the team’s player representative, Zack Britton, and focus on his primary task — which he did extremely well.

“I think just mixing all four pitches [fastball, slider, curveball and changeup] at all times,” Cole’s steady catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “He did a really good job staying in his lanes and executing everything all game. I really thought that that was very impressive.”

“He’s so good, and so fun to watch, and so versatile out there, and able to get you out in so many different ways,” Boone said.

In the bottom of the eighth, Cole struck out the side of Mike Zunino, Willy Adames and Brett Phillips, running up his pitch count to 106. Boone said he didn’t seriously contemplate leaving in Cole to go for the complete-game shutout, instead turning to closer Aroldis Chapman for his fourth appearance in five days.

Said Cole: “It was probably best to go to Chappy there, [Randy] Arozarena had gotten a little bit ahead of us [with a sixth-inning double]. … Smart decision.”

Cole could fully relax, as much as one can relax with COVID making its way through their clubhouse, after Chapman registered a 1-2-3 ninth. Suddenly, the Yankees, at 20-16, stand even in the loss column with the Red Sox (22-16) atop the AL East.

“Any time we get to play right now, it’s like a nice release,” Cole said.

Just imagine the nice release for the rest of the Yankees every time Cole takes the mound.

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