A Rare Matchup of Aces Adds ‘Extra Buzz’ to Subway Series

Nearly eight years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates began a three-game series on the road against the Detroit Tigers with a 5-4 win in 14 innings. Aside from being the longest game ever played at Comerica Park, at 5 hours 30 minutes, that extra-inning slog is also the only game to feature a starting pitching matchup between Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.

That is set to change Wednesday, when two of the most dominant pitchers of the last decade take the mound opposite one another, as Cole’s Yankees visit Verlander’s Mets for the second of two Subway Series games at Citi Field, which began with a 7-6 Yankees win on Tuesday.

Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said he expects the matchup between veteran aces to add “a little extra buzz” to the crosstown rivalry.

Cole and Verlander will always be linked for the two seasons they bullied major league batters while anchoring the Houston Astros’ starting rotation. In 2018 and 2019, the two years Cole spent with the Astros, Houston’s co-aces combined to go 72-25 with a 2.62 E.R.A. and an outrageous 1,192 strikeouts. In 2019, they led the Astros to their second American League pennant in three seasons, though they lost the World Series to the Washington Nationals in seven games. That year, Verlander won his second A.L. Cy Young Award and Cole was the runner-up.

The heights they would eventually reach as teammates were far from guaranteed when they faced off in 2015. At the time, Cole was a 24-year-old former No. 1 overall draft pick putting together his first All-Star season. Verlander was 32 and coming off the worst year of his career. The start against the Pirates was his third of the season, after a back injury had kept him out for the first two and a half months and forced him to miss his previously scheduled start.

Verlander was a decorated veteran working his way back from injuries when he last faced Cole on June 30, 2015.Credit…Leon Halip/Getty Images
Cole was just emerging as a star at the time of the matchup. Both pitchers hit batters in a testy affair.Credit…Leon Halip/Getty Images

That night, they each pitched into the seventh inning and allowed two earned runs: solid, yet hardly remarkable in a game that ended up not being halfway through. But their matchup did not lack drama. With two outs in the top of the fourth, and his team trailing by 3-0, Verlander hit then-Pirates left fielder (and his current Mets teammate) Starling Marte with a pitch. Then, with one out and nobody on in the bottom half of the fourth, Cole threw up-and-in with his first pitch and hit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez.

Naturally, Verlander’s first pitch in the fifth plunked Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez.

“Yeah, everyone knows that,” Martinez said back then when asked if he thought Cole hit him intentionally. “I mean, I have no respect for no one on that team, including Cole and their coaching staff. If they think that Verlander hit Marte with a 1-2 count — he was battling that at-bat — if they really think we did it on purpose, they’re playing the wrong sport.”

In response to Martinez, Cole said, “That’s his opinion, man,” and added that he didn’t know if Verlander had hit Marte intentionally.

If there was any lingering bad blood between Cole and Verlander, it had long dissipated by the time the Pirates traded Cole to Houston in January 2018. Brent Strom, who was the Astros’ pitching coach at the time and now holds the same role with the Diamondbacks, convinced Cole to ditch the two-seamer he had thrown low in the zone with Pittsburgh for a high four-seamer, which would be more difficult for hitters to catch up with. Just a few months earlier, Verlander had made a similar change to his arsenal after he was dealt to Houston from Detroit. Verlander’s successful adjustment was all the evidence Cole needed to do the same.

“Justin was like, ‘I think you can try to locate too much sometimes and you should just throw not to a general area, but if you attack the zone to a quadrant you’re probably going to get at least a foul ball, and that’s a good pressure pitch,’” Cole told Sports Illustrated in 2019.

Cole is off to a great start this season. He is 7-1 with a 2.84 E.R.A.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Their bond only grew, with the pitchers becoming catch partners in their time together in Houston.

After the 2019 World Series, Cole signed with the Yankees for nine years and $324 million — the largest contract ever awarded to a pitcher — and the superstars went from teammates to rivals. Verlander was under contract for two more seasons, though he made only one start in that span. He strained his right forearm in Houston’s 2020 season opener and was later diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. He had Tommy John surgery in late September of that year, missed all of 2021 and then became a free agent entering what would be his age-39 season. The Astros signed him to a two-year, $50 million deal, with an opt-out after the first season.

The deal turned out to be a bargain for Houston. Verlander went 18-4 with a 1.75 E.R.A., the best of his career, en route to winning his third A.L. Cy Young Award and second World Series title. He opted out of his contract and signed with the Mets for two years and $86.667 million.

Verlander has had an uneven start to his Mets tenure. He started the year on the injured list and has alternated between good and bad performances.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

When Cole and Verlander take the mound Wednesday, they will be in situations similar to the first time they matched up. Cole, who is 7-1 with a 2.84 E.R.A., figures to be on his way to another All-Star selection and is one of the early favorites to win the A.L.’s Cy Young Award. And as was the case in 2015, Verlander missed the start of this season with an injury and has yet to find his groove.

Verlander, 40, has alternated between strong starts and clunkers. In three of his seven outings, he’s gone at least six innings and allowed one run, but his overall numbers (2-3, 4.85 E.R.A.) are hardly what the Mets expected when they signed him. If the recent pattern holds, though, the Mets could be in for a good night. Verlander went three innings and allowed five runs (four earned) his last time out against the Atlanta Braves.

Either way, the Yankees know how difficult Verlander is to hit. Over his last six starts against them, Verlander is 3-1 with a 3.18 E.R.A. and 45 strikeouts in 39⅔ innings. The same holds true for Mets batters facing Cole, even though his results (2-2, 6.75 E.R.A.) have been mixed against them. He has faced the Mets only once since he joined the Yankees, and in that 2021 outing he lasted three and one-thirds innings and allowed four runs.

Regardless of any recent results, expectations will be high for the matchup.

“In Justin’s case, you know, already headed to the Hall of Fame, and Gerrit is a guy that I feel like is in the middle of a Hall of Fame career,” Boone said. “So I’m sure that’ll add a little extra to it.”

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