HOUSTON — The Astros took another winning journey on the Cole Train at Minute Maid Park.
This train is filled with untouchable fastballs and breaking balls, not oversized oranges.
Gerrit Cole, who will be the greatest free-agent prize imaginable in the offseason, showed again Thursday night what makes him so special in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Rays.
The Astros rode Cole to their third straight ALCS with a 6-1 win over the spunky Rays, who pushed the series to five games.
When it was over and the celebration was at full force in the clubhouse, shortstop Carlos Correa stood behind Cole and in full teammate appreciation poured a full bottle of champagne on his head, screaming, “You’re a bad man! You are a bad man, a bad man! The baddest, the baddest!’’
Correa is correct.
Cole proved to be the difference in the series. He was the winner in Game 2, pitching 7 ²/₃ shutout innings, and then followed that up Thursday night with another dominating performance. Cole went eight innings, allowed two hits, one run — an Eric Sogard home run — and struck out 10.
Give the Rays credit: They tried to mix and match in this series with their many different dependable bullpen arms, but there is nothing like having an ace on the mound who can carry a team through its biggest games.
Old school, baby. Cole is an opener and a finisher, which he has done most of the season as he has now won 18 in a row.
The winning streak began May 27 and has spanned 24 starts. In each of his last 11 starts, Cole has produced double-digit strikeouts. That is what the Yankees will come up against in Game 3 of the ALCS come Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.
Afterward, Cole was as quick to credit reliever Roberto Osuna, who pitched a clean ninth, as much as himself.
“We stepped up tonight,’’ he said.
Watching all this from the front row, one of the 43,418 fans at Minute Maid Park, was The Legend, Nolan Ryan.
“He loves to watch Cole and [Justin] Verlander pitch,’’ said Reid Ryan, Nolan’s son and Astros president.
“Gerrit put us on his back tonight and that is what we needed,’’ Verlander said.
In the first meeting between Cole and the Rays in this series, the Astros won 3-1 and Cole struck out 15 batters with 33 total swings and misses.
And now the Yankees come to town.
“We haven’t really played a series where both teams are completely healthy and completely armed,’’ said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who is expected to start with Zack Greinke, followed by Verlander and Cole. “So we’re about to buckle up and get to a seven-game series to see who represents the American League in the World Series. That’s a good feeling. It’s an even better feeling that it comes to our house and we have home-field [advantage].’’
Look for Nolan Ryan in the front row.