By Lenn Robbins
In what can’t be a perfect season, the Yankees almost turned in a perfect opener.
Pitcher Gerrit Cole, the $324 million free agent acquisition who the Yankees hope will lead them to their 28th World Series championship, dominated the defending champ Nationals, leading the Bombers to a 4-1 win before heavy rain halted play in the top of the sixth.
Giancarlo Stanton, who was limited to just 18 games last season due to an assortment of injuries, cracked a monster 459-foot home run in the top of the first with Aaron Judge on to give Cole a 2-0 lead. Cole allowed a solo home run to Adam Eaton in the bottom of the first but then he looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball, not just the highest paid.
That was the only hit the Nationals got off of Cole. He worked five innings striking out five and walking one. Washington’s Max Scherzer struck out 11 but he got touched for four earned runs on six hits.
Cole acknowledged on Wednesday that opening the coronavirus-shortened MLB season, in a new uniform no less, had him rearing to go. He only pitched in one Opening Day game in his career, losing to the Red Sox in 2017. Cole gave up five runs on seven hits in five innings that night. Thursday night he looked more like the pitcher who went 20-5 with an ERA of 2.50 and 326 strikeouts, the most since Randy Johnson struck out 334 batters in 2002.
“I am stoked,” Cole told reporters via Zoom. “I am already having trouble sleeping.”
If Cole can build on this emotional opener and Stanton can even remotely capture the form that made him one of the most feared sluggers in baseball, the Yankees chances of claiming their first title since 2009 just got a huge boost. Stanton went 2-for-3 with three RBI.
It doesn’t hurt the Yankees that MLB and the MLB Players Association agreed to expand the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams.
“This season will be a sprint to a new format that will allow more fans to experience playoff baseball,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement announcing the expansion. “We look forward to a memorable Postseason concluding a year like no other.”
The Yankees were scheduled to open the season on March 26 in Baltimore. But the pandemic hit and then the owners and players couldn’t agree on a deal and Manfred instituted this 60-game season.
For the Yankees, it’s an impressive one down and 59 to go.