Three things we learned from Yankees ace Gerrit Cole's return

NEW YORK -- For nearly three months, the New York Yankees trampled expectations without their ace Gerrit Cole. They posted the best record in the majors while the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner served as an unofficial assistant pitching coach as he recovered from an elbow injury.

But the Yankees know reaching the ultimate goal -- winning the franchise's 28th World Series title and first since 2009 -- almost certainly requires a healthy Cole on the mound in October.

Cole's season debut Wednesday night in a 7-6, 10-inning loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium was a significant checkpoint. And the results were encouraging: Four-plus innings, two runs on three hits and five strikeouts to one walk. Most importantly, Cole emerged healthy. It was a positive, if abbreviated, step in the right direction.

Here are three things to take away from Cole's first start of the 2024 season.

1. He's (nearly) ready for prime time

Cole made just three rehab outings in preparation for Wednesday. The pitch counts: 45, 57, 68. The Yankees would've been justified in having Cole make one more start in Triple-A to build up further. But they decided Cole was ready enough to use against their chief competition in the AL East. And they were right.

Cole's average fastball velocity was down 1.6 mph from last season, he gave up some hard contact and he had trouble putting a few batters away, but he was very sharp given the circumstances. The right-hander threw 62 pitches, 40 for strikes. He induced six whiffs and 13 called strikes, with full command of his five-pitch arsenal.

"I think the location was good," Cole said. "And I felt like the pitches were crisp. I think I got a swing-and miss on every offering. The consistency probably has to progress as well with the pitch count. I threw a couple of wonky sliders, but made a great slider in a big spot. It's encouraging."

Not surprisingly, it took some time for Cole to find his footing. His season started with some loud contact. Gunnar Henderson led the game off with a 109.1-mph one-hopper that bounced off second baseman Gleyber Torres' glove and into right field for a double. Two batters later, Ryan O'Hearn barreled an 0-2 slider for a 102.3-mph, two-out RBI ground-rule double.

From there, Cole settled in, retiring nine of the next 10 batters he faced. He retired the side in the second inning on just seven pitches. He walked Henderson in the third inning -- and watched Henderson steal second base -- but registered his first three strikeouts of the season and left Henderson stranded. The Orioles went down in order on 16 pitches in the fourth.

"I thought he got better as the game went along," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

The Orioles hit six pitches at least 101.5 mph., but the costly damage was limited to those two doubles in the first inning and Cedric Mullins' leadoff single in the fifth. That allowed Cole to average just over 15 pitches per inning, an economic output on a night when he needed to be economical to avoid overstressing the bullpen ahead of Thursday's rubber game.

Cole exited to a standing ovation in the fifth, with Mullins on base and the game tied at one. Reliever Ron Marinaccio promptly surrendered a two-run home run to Ramon Urías. The Yankees would rally to tie late in the game, so Cole didn't factor in the decision. It wasn't a vintage Cole performance, but that was never on the menu.

"It was nice," Cole said of making his return. "It was kind of a special game for me, a little bit. It's just been a long few months and a lot of emotions. I wasn't too sure how I was going to feel out there, but locating the ball quells the nerves a little bit."

2. He wasn't happy with how it ended

Cole left the game angry with himself for throwing a high fastball to Mullins to start the fifth inning and end his outing. He explained that was why he looked so frustrated as he left the game -- not because he wanted to stay in the game longer.

Cole recalled throwing a fastball away to Mullins in their first clash that produced a lineout to center field. He wasn't pleased with the location the next time around against the veteran center fielder.

"He's ready for it," Cole said of Mullins. "I have like 30 at-bats against him. He put a good swing on it and got up the middle and so probably just a little frustration with the cat and mouse. Cedric got me again on a high fastball."

Mullins is now 9-for-26 with two doubles and a home run in 27 career plate appearances against Cole.

3. There's 'more' to come ... but how much more is a mystery

Before the game, Boone refused to divulge Cole's pitch count, asserting that sharing the information would create a competitive disadvantage. It turns out the number was 65, which was why Boone pulled Cole after just one pitch in the fifth inning.

Boone said he sensed Cole was fatigued after the fourth inning, but he wanted Cole to face one more batter. Mullins made it quick with a single on Cole's 62nd pitch.

"I thought I held up well," Cole said. "I'm tired now. Certainly a different level. It just demands a higher level of focus and execution. I felt like I definitely could keep making pitches, but it was strategic in the pitch count."

What about the next time out? Cole, echoing his manager's competitive disadvantage line, declined to share that information other than to say the pitch count will be "more."