Cole solid in season debut, eyes higher pitch limit

MLB

NEW YORK — New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole’s assignment for his season debut Wednesday wasn’t cushy: a mid-June clash against the loaded Baltimore Orioles, his club’s primary competition for American League East supremacy, after just three rehab starts fresh off an alarming elbow injury.

But Cole isn’t your typical pitcher, and the Yankees deemed him ready knowing he would have to build up his stamina at the highest level. Working with a short leash Wednesday, the reigning Cy Young Award winner proved he was up for the challenge. He was sharp, with a touch of rust, over four-plus innings in front of a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium.

The right-hander was charged with two runs on three hits. He compiled five strikeouts to one walk. He threw 62 pitches and induced six swing-and-misses. His average fastball velocity was down 1.6 mph from last season, but Cole still touched 97 mph.

Before the game, Yankees manager Aaron Boone declined to share Cole’s pitch limit, not wanting to give the Orioles a competitive edge. But Cole was obviously going to be limited after he was built up to 68 pitches over 4⅓ innings in his third and final rehab start Friday.

“We’ll build him conservatively here to get him built up,” Boone said. “And, frankly, with all our guys we’ll kind of see where they’re at and what we feel like makes the most sense. But I don’t necessarily think it’ll be extra moving forward. It’ll just be conservatively getting [the pitches] up. But, then again, listening to each start, too, to see where he is.”

Cole took the mound at 7:07 pm to cheers after a video montage was played on the big screen highlighting his debut. “The Return of Gerrit Cole” was long-awaited. It began with a couple of bumps.

The Orioles inflicted most of their damage against Cole in the first inning. Gunnar Henderson led the game off with a one-hopper that bounced off second baseman Gleyber Torres‘ glove into right field and was ruled a double. Two batters later, Ryan O’Hearn, facing an 0-2, slashed a slider for a two-out, RBI ground-rule double.

Cole quickly regrouped. He needed just seven pitches to retire the side in the second inning. He issued a one-out walk to Henderson in the third. Henderson stole second base on the next pitch but was stranded there as Cole recorded his first three strikeouts of the season in the inning.

Cole retired the side in order with two strikeouts in the fourth frame on 16 pitches. He took the mound for the fifth inning but was pulled for reliever Ron Marinaccio after surrendering a first-pitch single to Cedric Mullins. The crowd showered Cole with a standing ovation. Cole, visibly annoyed with the end of his debut, acknowledged the supporters with his glove twice.

Then he watched Marinaccio yield a two-run home run to Ramon Urias for the second of the two runs on his pitching line.

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