Let me freely confess bias. I adore watching a dominant ace, one of those pitchers who in the flower of his power and guile imposes his will on a powerful adversary.
So I sat to watch the Astros’ ace of aces, Gerrit Cole, take on the Yankees, and their fearsome, stuffed-to-the-gills power lineup on Tuesday in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. And for an inning it appeared Cole’s day would end early.
D.J. LeMahieu led off the first inning by whacking a 99-mile-per-hour pitch to center. A cue shot of a single followed. Two batters later, Gleyber Torres, the Yankees’ 22-year-old man-child, came to the plate. Torres had honed his craft as a kid playing chapitas, a game that involved hitting darting bottle caps with a broomstick in the twilight in Caracas. In the majors, he has become a .400-hitting terror this postseason.
Cole moved pitches inside and out, nibbling, trying to entice Torres into an unwise swing. Eventually he walked Torres to load the bases, almost as if he had planned it that way.
Later, Cole acknowledged he had.
“You put some pressure on him, and if he doesn’t bite, whatever,” Cole said of Torres. “You’ve got to move on.”
Cole promptly induced a grounder from Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius to end the inning.
None of this should suggest fanboy rapture for the Astros. My ancestral baseball loyalties lie crosstown, in Flushing and the National League. The Yankees and the Astros are dominant American League teams, and I root only for a sweaty embrace of a series. The teams share offenses of abundance — the Yankees hit 306 home runs and averaged 5.8 runs this year, while the Astros hit 280 homers and averaged 5.6 runs.
It is their pitching approaches that radically diverge into schools New and Old, and that are most fascinating.
The Yankees lean to the current orthodoxy, which dictates tight pitch counts for starters — never, ever more throw more than 100 — followed by a march of relievers, one semi-anonymous hard-throwing dude after another. The Yankees have two of the best in their bullpen: Zack Britton, the setup man, and Aroldis Chapman, the 103-m.p.h closer and executioner.
In fairness to the Yankees, their adherence to current major league doctrine on relief pitching is in part driven by necessity. Luis Severino, their Game 3 starter, was among the many Yankees wounded this year, pitching only 12 innings in the regular season. At 38, C.C. Sabathia was a shadow of his once dominant self, as was the 36-year-old starter J.A. Happ.
The Astros have three Cy Young Award-winning aces: Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, all of whom threw more than 200 innings and won between 18 and 21 games this season. The Astros will go as far in the playoffs as that absurd abundance takes them. To beat them, the Yankees would be wise to strike early. As is true of most aces, Cole is shakiest in the first inning, when he had a 3.55 earned run average this season.
Greinke, who will start Game 4 on Thursday after a rainout Wednesday, was no different. He posted a 3.55 E.R.A. in his first innings before settling into a 2.93 groove over all. Verlander’s numbers are similar if closer: 3.18 in the first, 2.90 over all. Each of these pitchers, clearly, gets stronger as the game goes along.
Late last year, I considered this question historically. I examined the performances of good-to-great pitchers over the decades: Luis Tiant, Mike Torrez, Pedro Martinez, Tom Browning, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins and the Atlanta Braves’ troika of Hall of Famers — Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. Over and over again, I found the same pattern that exists with the Astros’ aces.
The worst innings were most often the first. Once they discovered a rhythm, these pitchers became far more difficult to hit. Seaver’s career earned run average in the first inning was 3.75. His E.R.A. for the last three innings of a game, the dreaded third and fourth time through the batting order, stood at 2.75. Jenkins, the great Cubs pitcher, had a 4.02 career E.R.A. in the first inning — and a 3.30 E.R.A. in 301 ninth innings.
So conventional major league wisdom — shorter starts and then fresh arms — did a yoga handstand.
It was no different when Cole started on Tuesday. Once he survived that shaky first inning, the odds he would emerge with a victory actually improved as the game progressed.
“That’s old school, right?” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “We like when the starter gets to pitch a little bit.”
The splendidly talented Severino, meanwhile, looked like a man on a hot tin roof through the early innings. On his third pitch, Severino, 25, had the misfortune to throw to the 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve, who unleashed his mighty-mite, cave-man swing, and the ball landed in the Astros’ bullpen.
Tell us, a reporter asked Altuve later, about your approach on that home run. Altuve shook his head. No particular approach. “I don’t like to waste much time at the plate,” he said.
Cole had a case or two of the shakes. He walked five Yankees, which was profligate for him. But the Yankees could not move anyone around for a run. By the seventh — an inning in which Cole posted an E.R.A. of 1.12 this season — he was breezing, needing all of eight pitches to lay down the top of the fearsome Yankees order and ultimately to assure an Astros victory and a two-games-to-one lead in the A.L.C.S.
The issue for the Yankees as they head to the postponed Game 4 is that Greinke and Verlander are no different. When Verlander threw more than 100 pitches this season, batters hit .182 against him. Five times this season Greinke pitched in the eighth and ninth innings. His earned run average for those innings was 0.00.
It would be difficult for a reliever to improve upon that.
Look, this series is but three games old, and the Yankees are too strong, top to bottom, not to rebound. If there is reason to worry, though, it can be found in this sentence from Cole about his seven shutout innings.
“Next time out,” he said, “I’m pretty confident I’ll be better.”
Michael Powell is the Sports of The Times columnist. A native New Yorker, he joined The Times in 2007. He was part of teams that have won a Polk Award and a Pulitzer Prize. @powellnyt