Gerrit Cole was perhaps a little more pumped up than usual for a start in early June against a last-place team from a different division -- even if he was reluctant to admit it.
Thrust into the position as the face of baseball's burgeoning controversy over the application of foreign substances to improve pitchers' grips and spin rates, Cole responded with a solid effort Wednesday at Target Field in the New York Yankees' 9-6 win over the Minnesota Twins, striking out nine and allowing two solo home runs in six innings. Along the way, he posted the highest average fastball velocity of any start in his career -- including the postseason -- and twice struck out Josh Donaldson, the former MVP who had called out Cole's diminished spin rate after Cole's previous start last week.
After the win, Cole attempted to downplay both his increased velocity as "sometimes you just bring your best fastball" and the showdowns against Donaldson, saying the outs were big only in the context that Donaldson is an important cog in the Twins' lineup. Still, he threw four of his six fastest pitches of the season -- two of those fastballs of 100.4 mph and 100.2 mph to Donaldson. Cole averaged 98.2 mph on his fastball in this start, above his season average of 97.3 mph. Finally, Cole did acknowledge that perhaps those superheated fastballs to Donaldson were "probably a bit of the moment."
The anticipated matchups with Donaldson ended with a couple of Cole staredowns. With some speculation that he might throw at Donaldson, Cole instead went right after him in the bottom of the first inning, striking out Donaldson on a 1-2, big-breaking curveball that measured 2,901 rpm -- a higher spin rate than all but one curveball he had thrown against the Tampa Bay Rays last week. Cole offered a long look toward Donaldson as the Twins' third baseman walked to the dugout. In the third inning, Cole fanned Donaldson swinging on a 2-2 slider that was up and out of the strike zone, and once again gave him a glare. In the sixth inning, Donaldson flew out to right field on a 97 mph fastball.
Cole's spin rate normalized somewhat against the Twins, after he had posted his lowest average spin rate in that start against the Rays, in which he allowed five runs in five innings. The spin rate on his four-seam fastball averaged 2,493 rpm, below his season average of 2,547, but higher than the 2,436 rpms he averaged against the Rays.
Despite the performance, the questions surrounding Cole and other pitchers aren't likely to go away, and he will have to block out the noise.
"I think it's fair to say it's difficult to do that in this jersey in general," Cole said with a smile, "but that's what we sign up for when we come here. I'm not going to say it's the thing we love the most about playing here, but I guess you can't have it all."
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said he didn't know whether the foreign-substance chatter would subside, but added of Cole, "The one thing I know, he's an amazing pitcher and a tremendous competitor. When all this dust settles, wherever this storyline goes, that ain't changing. I thought his effort with all this distraction going on around him, he went out there and showed you who he was."
Cole also addressed his non-answer to a question Tuesday about whether he had used a grip substance called Spider Tack.
"I hesitated yesterday on the specificity of the question because I just don't think this is the forum to discuss those kinds of things," he said. "There's an appropriate time for players to discuss those things, and I'll keep it to that forum."
Before the game, Donaldson talked on the field with reporters for about 30 minutes, discussing Cole and his desire to speak out on what he believes to be the seriousness of the foreign-substance issue.
"When I say something, it's been thought through before. It's not just something on a whim," Donaldson said. "I would say this: With Gerrit Cole, he was the first guy to pitch since the [minor league] suspensions had happened and he was the first guy you could see spin rates going down. Since Gerrit did that -- we're going off an interview that was done four or five days ago -- there have been 12 or more guys already whose spin rates have magically dropped in the last week."
Last week, Donaldson said that hitters accept applications such as rosin, sunscreen and pine tar, but that pitchers have gone too far in using "performance enhancers." He reinforced that stance on Wednesday.
"Just think about how many pitches I've seen in my career, think about Nelson Cruz, a lot of these guys who have seen a lot of pitches," he said. "We know when stuff's up. It's hard to probably find the ingredient to what's causing that. But now that there's been some enlightenment to that, that's why you're seeing guys take a stance on it."
With MLB indicating it will soon start cracking down on illegal substances applied to the baseball, other pitchers have also seen their spin rates fall, as Donaldson indicated. Los Angeles Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer, who saw his average spin rate increase dramatically the past two seasons, had his lowest average spin rate of 2021 in his last start, averaging 2,780 rpms after averaging 2,888 rpms heading into that game.
ESPN's Marly Rivera contributed to this report.