Life without Gerrit Cole? For the Yankees, it begins with the bats

Life without Gerrit Cole? For the Yankees, it begins with the bats

HOUSTON — A few hours before the start of their 2024 season on Thursday, the New York Yankees unveiled their Opening Day roster. Folded into the announcement was another piece of news: They had placed eight players on the injured list. As expected, Gerrit Cole, two weeks after being shut down with nerve inflammation and edema in his right elbow, was chief among them.

With that, the pain for Yankees fans became officially official. Instead of taking the ball on Opening Day for New York for the fifth straight year, Cole landed on the 60-day IL, meaning the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner isn’t eligible to return until late May. The Yankees must navigate at least two months — maybe much longer — without arguably the best pitcher in the world.

“It certainly sucks not having your ace go,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said before the game.

How the team performs in Cole’s absence will likely determine the course of the club’s season, a clear win-now mission. The formula the Yankees envision to succeed was on display Thursday afternoon in their 5-4 comeback win over the Houston Astros.

Solid, if not spectacular, starts from a rotation full of question marks. Strong bullpen performances. An improved defense. And, most importantly, a relentless lineup capable of grinding opposing pitchers down — leaving the other departments more margin for error.

They repeated the recipe in Friday’s 7-1 victory, deleting a 1-0 deficit in the late innings to begin the season 2-0 against a nemesis and projected World Series contender.

The Yankees’ offense, at least across the first two games, has looked very different from the one that ranked 25th in the majors in runs scored in 2023. Because it is very different. For all the doom and gloom surrounding the unit last season, its woes were primarily fueled by an onslaught of injuries, most notably the toe injury Aaron Judge suffered when he crashed into the right-field bullpen gate at Dodger Stadium and Anthony Rizzo‘s struggles with an undiagnosed concussion caused by a collision with Fernando Tatis Jr.

Just three players (Anthony Volpe, Gleyber Torres, and DJ LeMahieu, who is starting this season on the IL) appeared in more than 115 games in 2023. Add Juan Soto and Alex Verdugo, both acquired in offseason trades, and the offense should rank among the best in the majors — if it can stay relatively healthy.

That’s a big if with five regulars in their 30s, and there are issues already. LeMahieu suffered a bone bruise in his foot during spring training that required another round of testing Friday; Boone said he didn’t know the results yet. Then Torres was hit by a pitch in his right hand in the seventh inning Friday. He initially stayed in the game but removed himself a half-inning later, though X-rays on the thumb were negative.

Torres was plunked during the Yankees offense’s awakening Friday. Astros starter Cristian Javier had held it scoreless over the first six frames — outdueling Carlos Rodon, who gave up one run in 4⅓ innings — before the Yankees pounced on the Houston bullpen.

The Yankees scored two runs in the seventh inning and followed with four more in the eighth as the Astros’ defense combusted. Oswaldo Cabrera punctuated the outburst with an RBI single — his fourth hit of the night and sixth in the two games. Giancarlo Stanton, who played in just 101 games in a disastrous 2023 season, blasted a home run in the ninth. Suddenly, it was a blowout.

“We”ve been trying to do that since spring training,” said Soto, who went 4-for-7 with three walks in the two games. “We were focusing on that stuff. Taking good at-bats, taking good at-bats against everybody. Don’t give at-bats away.”

On Thursday, Nestor Cortes, making his first career Opening Day start after an injury-shortened 2023 campaign, was a batter or two from getting pulled during a laborious first inning. He spotted the Astros a 4-0 lead after two frames. Cole’s absence was magnified. But Cortes was quickly reminded of the firepower on his side.

“I remember coming in the second inning,” Cortes said, “and [pitching coach] Matt Blake telling me, ‘Hey, just hold the rope. We’re going to get some runs across.'”

The Yankees grounded into three double plays to kill rallies early — twice with the bases loaded — but they didn’t waver from the game plan.

The tone was set with Soto’s first plate appearance as a Yankee, an eight-pitch walk in the second inning. They continued working deep counts against Framber Valdez, one of the game’s elite left-handed starters, eventually chasing him in the fifth inning after 86 pitches. They drew nine walks in total — plus a hit by pitch.

“That’s the kind of offense we want to be,” Boone said.

The bases-clearing hit never came, but they scored five runs in the middle innings to take the lead anyway. In the fifth, an RBI single from Soto, followed by Rizzo getting hit by a pitch and Volpe working a walk, both with the bases loaded. In the sixth, a solo home run from Cabrera. And, finally, Verdugo’s go-ahead sacrifice fly in the seventh. By taking pitches and chipping away, the Yankees’ offense had mounted the team’s biggest Opening Day comeback since 1950.

“It’s scary, bro,” Verdugo said. “We got some guys. No question about it.”

Cortes retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced, throwing 43 pitches in his final four innings after 33 in the first. Three relievers held the Astros scoreless over the final four frames. Verdugo tracked down a potential tying double in left field in the seventh before Soto stole the show by throwing out another potential tying run in the ninth.

“This group from the beginning, we talked about it, it’s going to take everybody,” Judge said. “There was no panic or fear in this clubhouse and in that dugout. We’re down 3-0, 4-0 and the guys just stay locked in on their approach and what they had to do and we were able to wear down Framber a little bit.”

The Yankees’ fate in 2024 hinges on health. Few teams can match the firepower of a Soto-Judge one-two punch, surrounded by a potent — and intact — supporting cast. The results just matter even more now to stay afloat in a competitive American League East over the next two months — if not longer — without their ace. The early returns indicate they can score the runs. Time will tell if they can stay healthy enough to keep scoring enough of them.