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Wednesday night the New York Yankees had their ace on the mound with a chance to deliver a kill shot, and effectively bury the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL wild-card race. Instead, the Blue Jays tagged Gerrit Cole for five runs in six innings and not only won the game to keep their postseason hopes alive, but also essentially clinched the Cy Young for teammate Robbie Ray.

"I think we're running into some really tough teams," Cole told reporters, including MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, following Wednesday's loss (TOR 6, NY 5). "I just was not quite sharp enough today. That's just the bottom line. I think that I certainly showed the ability to make the pitches that we needed to over the course of the game. I just didn't make enough of them."  

Toronto hammered Cole's fastball early in the count -- he surrendered seven extra-base hits in six innings after giving up seven extra-base hits in his first seven starts this season -- and issues with slider location compounded the problem. The Blue Jays didn't have to respect the slider because it wasn't near the zone often enough, allowing them to sit fastball.

"I think our game plan to establish the fastball and their plan to jump it kind of matched up together," Cole told Hoch. "It's not to say that if I don't execute my pitches better, maybe there's a better result. Certainly, George (Springer) was ready for the first pitch and (Marcus) Semien was ready for that mistake."  

The Yankees remain in the driver's seat for a postseason spot -- they are one game up on the Red Sox for the top wild-card spot and 1 1/2 games up on the Mariners for a wild-card spot in general -- though they are at a scheduling disadvantage. Here is each Wild Card contender's remaining schedule:

  • Yankees: 1 game at Blue Jays and 3 games vs. Rays
  • Red Sox: 1 game at Orioles and 3 games at Nationals
  • Mariners: off-day Thursday and 3 games vs. Angels
  • Blue Jays: 1 game vs. Yankees and 3 games vs. Orioles

This weekend New York will play the Rays, a team that has already clinched the league's best record but would love nothing more than to keep the Yankees out of the postseason, while their competitors play clubs already eliminated from postseason contention. The Angels, Nats, and O's are counting down the days until their offseason vacations. The Yankees have their hands full.

Beyond the schedule, the larger concern is Cole, who hasn't looked like himself since returning from a tight left hamstring earlier this month. He's made four starts since the hamstring issue and the best of the four required 108 pitches to grind through five innings against Baltimore. Here are Cole's four starts since returning from the hamstring problem:

DateIPHRERBBKHR

Sept. 14 at Orioles

5

4

1

1

3

7

0

Sept. 19 vs. Cleveland

3 2/3

5

3

2

2

2

1

Sept. 24 at Red Sox

6

5

3

3

3

6

1

Sept. 30 at Blue Jays

6

9

5

5

0

6

2

Total

22 2/3

28

16

16

7

26

5

That works out to a 6.35 ERA and a .304/.360/.554 opponent's batting line in what amount to Cole's four most important starts of the season. The last three were certainly his three most important starts, and twice he was ineffective. Cole insists the hamstring is a non-issue, though he was lights out before it acted up (1.82 ERA in previous five starts) and has labored since returning.

"Physically, I think the velocity is in a good spot," Cole told Hoch. "Things have rebounded well since a couple of those injury mishaps. I'm in a good enough spot to make enough good pitches. I've just got to make those pitches at the right times."  

Cole is currently lined up to start Game 162 on Sunday on short rest. If that game is meaningful (i.e. if the Yankees have not yet clinched a postseason spot), he'll start. Otherwise he's lined up to pitch a Game 163 tiebreaker on Monday on normal rest, or the Wild Card Game on Tuesday on extra rest. Point is, if Cole makes another start this year, it will be a win-or-go-home situation.

Giving the ball to Cole in a winner-take-all situation is something the Yankees (and I think everyone) would normally sign up for no questions asked. With the current version of Cole though? There's at least a little doubt now. He hasn't been all that effective since the hamstring injury, and while he could dominate in five days and no one would blink an eye, there's some uncertainly now.

The Yankees could still qualify for the postseason even with Cole's recent struggles, but there is basically zero chance they make a deep run with Cole being something less than a lock-down ace. His post-hamstring issues are worrisome. Not quite a cause for outright panic, but worrisome, especially since the stakes will be so high should he make another start in 2021.