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Cole readies himself for free agency by dominating hitters in a historic way

Gerrit Cole

(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

It’s hard not to imagine that Astros starter Gerrit Cole isn’t going to be the hottest commodity on the free agent market during the offseason.

Let’s face it, every team with cash and a need for an ace will line up to wine and dine him. And you can put the Yankees, Cubs and Angels right on top of that list.

While the Astros were trying to sweep the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series on Monday, we just wanted to take a moment to time travel back and marvel in the historic nature of Cole did in Game 2 on Saturday.

The righthander shutdown the Rays to become just the seventh pitcher to collect at least 15 strikeouts in a postseason game. And Cole is the first to do it in 19 years, dating to Roger Clemens’ performance against the Yankees in Game 4 of the 2000 AL Championship Series.

“That’s an easy one to brag about because he was incredible,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “It’s hard to put into words exactly what his performance meant to us tonight. But, man, he was good. What a game.”

The performance also set Houston’s franchise record for a playoff game. Mike Scott whiffed 14 Mets in Game 1 of the 1986 NLCS.

The great Bob Gibson holds the postseason record with 17 during Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against the Tigers. That’s the year his ERA was 1.12. San Diego’s Kevin Brown struck out 16 Astros in the 1998 NLDS. Cole will have to settle for now being with Sandy Koufax and three others for third-most strikeouts.

Cole is a remarkably gifted pitcher. Along with teammate Justin Verlander and Mets starter Jacob deGrom, he’s likely one of the top three arms in the game. He has a blazing fastball and top-shelf breaking stuff and his addition to any pitching staff is certain to change the face of the team.

It’s hard to image the Astros will be able to sign Cole, what with their contractual obligations to Verlander ($28 million), Zack Greinke ($31.5 million) and the understanding they will soon need to pay George Springer and Alex Bregman. There is only so much money to go around.

Losing Cole would be crushing for any team. The Pirates certainly didn’t want to trade Cole in 2018, but they realized they’d never be able to properly compensate him so they did what they had to do.

Gerrit Cole

(Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Consider that Cole, just 29 years old, has already joined Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Gibson as the only pitchers with multiple games of at least 12 strikeouts in the playoffs.

On Saturday, he threw 118 pitches over 72/3 innings, allowed four hits and walked only one, the final hitter he faced. He has won 17 straight decisions since May.

“Seriously, he’s got the best stuff in baseball,” said Bregman. “He’s a bulldog on the mound.”

“To see Gerrit go out there and dominate the way he did, nobody was surprised because we know the preparation and work that he put in. We love playing behind him.”

Cole is considered one of the most cerebral pitchers in the game. He knows how to pitch and how to keep hitters off-balance with his fastball, curve and slider.

The Rays swung and missed 33 times on Saturday and all nine of their hitters struck out at least once. According to The Athletic, his 15 strikeouts were acquired evenly – five on fastballs, five on curves, five on sliders. All but one were swinging.

“His biggest strength is his mind,” said Astros manager AJ Hinch.

“When you see five punchouts on the fastball, five punchouts on the breaking ball chase, five punchouts on the hard slider — that is pure dominance across the board. Very rarely in the big leagues can you go to the same area at-bat after at-bat after at-bat. He pitches deep enough into games to get to face these guys three, sometimes four times. His mind and his ability to trust his adjustments set him apart.”

Cole was 20-5 this season with an AL-best 2.50 ERA. His 326 strikeouts (13.8 per nine innings) also led the league. They are the most in a season since Randy Johnson struck out 334 in 2002. He has struck out at least 14 in five of his last eight starts.

“This guy has been incredibly dominant for so long,” said Hinch. “The circumstances, the team, the environment, the time of year, it’s hard to top that performance. But I’m not going to doubt him. I mean, (when) he gets the ball again this postseason, he’s just as equipped to do even better.”