Astros clinch playoffs behind Cole’s 300th strikeout

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Fans took to their feet and filled Minute Maid Park with noise as Shin-Soo Choo fell behind in the count in the sixth inning, knowing Gerrit Cole was on the verge of history.

Although he came up one inning shy of becoming the fastest pitcher in major league history to record 300 strikeouts in a season, he etched his name in Astros’ record books by becoming only the third hurler to accomplish that feat, joining J.R. Richard (303 in 1978, 313 in 1979) and Mike Scott (306 in 1986).

Entering Wednesday’s game against the in-state rival Texas Rangers, Cole needed just eight punch outs to reach the benchmark and got to work immediately, registering eight first-pitch strikes to the first 10 batters he faced, accumulating a trio of strikeouts in the first third of the game.

Alex Bregman broke up Kolby Allard’s no-hit bid in the third inning but Houston didn’t supply its pitcher with run support until the fifth inning when Yuli Gurriel’s two-run blast to left-center field swung the momentum wholeheartedly to the home side.

It was in the ensuing top-half of the inning where Cole sat just two K’s away from No. 300 and after setting the Rangers down in order, Choo bookending things with his second strikeout of the evening, all 38,417 in attendance showered the pitcher with applause, inciting a thankful wave from the top step of the dugout to the hometown faithful.

“At first I didn’t know that was the one,” Cole admitted. “I thought I only had seven and then it became pretty obvious and I just wanted to spend a minute with the fans and thank them for the ovation and all the support.

“I don’t typically think of these things but I did want to try and get it done here tonight in front of our fans,” he continued. “They’ve come out in large numbers all year and they’re so much fun to play in front of and it was just a blessing to get it done tonight.”

What also was accomplished that Wednesday night was a playoff berth, the Astros’ third in a row and fourth in the last five years, with their 100th win on the season, hitting triple digits in the win column for the third consecutive season, becoming only the sixth club to do so.

“I love it for this team and organization, it’s a big accomplishment,” said manager A.J. Hinch. “It’s one step along the way for us in what we’re trying to accomplish this year, I don’t want that to be the high note by any means, but I want to take a moment and congratulate our team and get to the next game and see how many we can win.”

Houston might not have won if it had not been for an insurance run thanks to one swing of the bat from Jose Altuve, clearing the right-center fence for a 3-1 lead after seven full innings of play.

Ronald Guzman led off the eighth with a solo blast to right to pull Texas within 3-2, but Cole handed Elvis Andrus his third seat of the night by way of the K (his 10th of the night) and forced Willie Calhoun to lineout, ending his night after eight full with six hits allowed, two earned runs and one walk complementing his 19th double-digit strikeout game this year.

The only other pitchers in Major League Baseball’s history to strikeout more than 10 batters 19 times in a season have one thing in common, a hall of fame bust; Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez. The 19th game of this variety this year makes Cole the only one to accomplish that in 2019 while also setting the club record in that regard.

Not only all of that but Cole also walked away victorious from his 14th start in a row this season, becoming the first to do that since the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg did so in 2013.

Although he may not have been fully in-tune to all of those records, he did certainly understand the importance tonight had and credited those around him for helping him get even better.

“At this point yes I’m aware (of the 300) and it’s really special … I can’t really put it into words,” Cole said, searching for the right phrases. “I was thinking about a conversation I had with Justin (Verlander) and Dallas (Keuchel) my second or third day I arrived in spring training two years ago and I was like, ‘Hey I really would like to learn how to strike out a couple more guys a game because sometimes I think that could be the most efficient way to get an out in some big situations,’” he recounted.

“We sat down for a handful of hours whether it be over dinner or on the field and here we are at 300 strikeouts in a season and it’s a reflection of the catching staff that has been amazing preparation-wise and the defense giving me the confidence to pound the zone as well,” Cole said. “I’m really humbled but there are a lot of people who contributed to it, not just me.”

His skipper agreed that he is not your normal average pitcher but Cole puts in the work to exceed.

“He’s incredible, I think he’s a special player, he’s a special person, it was a big night for him it’s a big accomplishment, he did get the win and finished his outing in a critical fashion,” Hinch said. “He’s been a workhorse for us the entire year, these performances he’s rattling off are not easy; he makes it look a lot easier than it is but it starts with his preparation and ends with his execution, his intensity is unmatched.”

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