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Reigning AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole took a big step toward a return to the New York Yankees on Tuesday night. Cole, who has been sidelined by nerve inflammation in his elbow since spring training, made his first minor league rehab start with New York's Double-A affiliate, the Somerset Patriots. He threw 45 pitches in 3 1/3 scoreless innings.

In those 3 1/3 innings, Cole allowed two singles and no walks while striking out five. He said the Yankees told him his fastball was 94-97 mph, per The Athletic. Cole was scheduled to throw 40-50 pitches Tuesday.

"Definitely close," Cole said following Tuesday's start. "I'm not sure how many more (rehab starts) we'll need, but definitely closer rather than farther away. It should be right around the corner here."  

Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Cole will make "at least a few" rehab starts, per The Athletic. Boone reiterated this stance on Wednesday, which is good news because that implies Cole reported no negative issues stemming from the outing. Rehabbing pitchers typically add 15 pitches to their workload each time out, so after throwing 45 pitches Tuesday, Cole is on track to throw 60 pitches in his next rehab start, and then 75 pitches in the rehab start after that. Depending how things are going, he could be activated then.

Three rehab starts on normal rest would put Cole on track to return on Wednesday, June 2. That would be the second game of a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles, which would be good timing for the Yankees. To be clear, three rehab starts is only my speculation. The Yankees have not revealed an exact number of rehab starts yet.

"It just depends. Do we want to bring him in a situation where he's at 60, 65, 70 pitches?" Boone said this past weekend about Cole's rehab stint (via MLB.com). "Do we want him to have one more (rehab start)? We'll have a better feel for that, and certainly Gerrit will have a better feel for that as he now goes and starts pitching in games."

Of course, the Yankees have been doing more than fine without Cole. They entered play Tuesday with a 42-19 record, tied with the Philadelphia Phillies for the game's best, and they are allowing only 3.15 runs per game. That's 0.31 runs per game better than any other team. That said, this is Gerrit Cole. The sooner he returns, the better they'll be.

The Yankees lost right-hander Clarke Schmidt to a lat strain last week and he is expected to miss two months, and possibly longer. He made 11 starts with a 2.52 ERA before the injury and was one of New York's most effective pitchers. Journeyman Cody Poteet was called up to replace Schmidt. He has a 2.45 ERA in two starts in 2024.

Cole, 33, led the American League in innings (209), ERA (2.63), ERA+ (165), WHIP (0.98), and WAR (7.4) en route to winning the Cy Young unanimously in 2023. It was his first career Cy Young, and his five previous top five finishes in the voting were the most ever for a pitcher at the time of his first Cy Young win.

Pitchers have a 30-day rehab window, so the Yankees must activate Cole no later than Thursday, July 4. They could always activate him sooner, but that's the latest he can return barring a setback or new injury. Cole is in Year 5 of a nine-year, $324 million contract.