Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, a Mariner’s ‘tired act,’ and an ace who is feeling it more than ever

Jun 20, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) reacts during the seventh inning against the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium.
Jun 20, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) reacts during the seventh inning against the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole had a terrific season last year, he really did, but there were weird days, too. The weirdest might have been Aug. 3, 2022, here at Yankee Stadium against the Seattle Mariners.

That afternoon, Cole allowed six runs and three homers in the first inning. Hours later I stood with him until the clubhouse was empty, and most teammates had dressed and packed for a road trip. Cole hadn’t even showered yet; he was stuck regretting his pitch selections.

On Tuesday night, in a different year but in the same ballpark and against the same team, Cole was feeling it. The Yankees beat the Mariners, 3-1, and Cole pitched into the eighth inning, allowed one run, sent a purposeful pitch to the backstop and wagged his finger at the opposing manager.

He also improved to 7-0 this season following a Yankees loss — and this time had actually been four losses, a streak that provoked the GM out of his office before the game for a state of the team address intended to calm a restless fan base.

The reasons for Cole’s success were familiar: He worked with catcher Jose Trevino to spot a mid-to-high 90s fastball all over the strike zone, and mixed in top-shelf sliders, cutters and curves.

More interesting on this night were his responses to Mariners second baseman Jose Caballero and manager Scott Servais. These showed how Cole is becoming ever more comfortable in himself as the Yankee ace.

All night, Caballero was annoying Cole and the Yanks with attempted pitch clock manipulation. The way the team saw it, according to a source, was that Caballero was trying to trick Cole into a violation by looking at him, then not looking at him, as the eight-second time limit to face the pitcher approached.

If a pitcher starts his windup before the batter is attentive and with eight seconds or more remaining, he is charged with an automatic ball. The Yankees thought that Caballero was trying to get Cole to do this by making it unclear if he was ready.

“He’s a tired act,” one Yankee said.

With an 0-2 count on Caballero and two out in the seventh inning, Cole sent a fastball to the backstop, then glared at the batter. “Sometimes a high fastball can be a really effective pitch,” Cole deadpanned later. “Gotta change eye levels.”

Cole struck out Caballero on a 3-2 pitch, glared again on his way off the mound, then stopped to launch the gesture that will live on in meme and gif form for as long as this fragile planet can sustain human life: He scrunched his face, squeezed his shoulders tighter to his ears, and wagged his finger toward the Mariners.

After the game, Cole revealed that he wasn’t pointing at Caballero. He was returning serve to Seattle manager Scott Servais.

“Their manager had some choice words for me coming off the field and he was wagging his finger at me, so I wagged my finger at him,” Cole said. “That’s the first time an opposing manager has wagged his finger at me.”

It was all good theater, but it seemed that these events also held a clue toward a deeper meaning: Cole was feeling more confident than ever in letting his personality fly.

After the postgame scrum of reporters dispersed, I followed Cole toward his locker and mentioned that the purpose pitch and finger wagging seemed to represent a more confident version of him.

In years past, Cole has made it his brand to never respond in public to public insults. In 2021, I reminded him, then-opponent Josh Donaldson singled him out for use of sticky stuff, a widespread issue among pitchers at the time.

In 2022, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah plunked Aaron Judge. Judge took offense, and Cole stepped out of the dugout to bark at Manoah. Later, Manoah referenced an advertisement painted on the grass in foul territory by saying, “Walk past the Audi sign next time.”

On neither occasion did Cole take the bait.

But on this June night in 2023, Cole went right after Caballero with a salty pitch, then turned on Servais — both with his body language in the moment and with his comments to the media afterward.

This seemed the intangible part of the change that has led Cole to an 8-1 record, 2.64 ERA, and status as an undisputed stopper. It is different from being a supremely talented ace whose weird moments and days spiraled out of control and defined even his own attempts at explanation.

I asked Cole if the events of the night were evidence that he was feeling himself.

“Yeah, I don’t know about feeling myself,” he said.

Okay, weird phrase.

“But I think you know what I’m talking about,” I said.

“Yeah,” Cole said.

Then he added: “Hopefully I keep maturing and settling in.”

Settling in. That’s what Cole is doing. In year four with the Yankees, he is shedding that big contract pressure, acting with less caution, and letting his stuff rip.

If you wag your finger at this version of Cole, he’ll wag his right back.

And if the Yankees happened to have lost the day before, he’ll probably beat you, too.