HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- After a heartbreaking loss for the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the World Series Wednesday night, one question that appears to be lingering is why pitcher Gerrit Cole wasn't out there on the mound.
He was one of the options available to Astros manager A.J. Hinch.
Zack Greinke started for Houston, Cole watched from the bullpen, and Will Harris was warming up.
What came next, Hinch will contemplate for years.
"It's a decision I'll have to live with," he said.
After Greinke allowed a homer to Anthony Rendon and walked Juan Soto, Hinch handed a 2-1 lead to Harris in the seventh inning of World Series Game 7. On Harris' second pitch, Howie Kendrick drove a two-run, go-ahead homer off the right field foul pole screen - a haymaker that stunned Houston in a 6-2 defeat that cost them the chance at a second title in two years.
"It's every reliever's nightmare that I get a chance to live," Harris said, his eyes red-rimmed from the emotional ending.
Greinke, the 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner who joined the Astros from Arizona at the trade deadline, had looked strong all night. He threw only 80 pitches, was just starting his third turn through the order, and Rendon's homer was just his second hit allowed. He played superb defense, too.
And yet, out came Hinch.
"We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October," Hinch said. "I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late."
That was only half the decision that went so wrong.
Hinch could have turned to Cole, a Cy Young Award contender who won Game 5 on Sunday. Ready to go on short rest, he was warming up earlier in the game but had cooled off by the seventh. He only left the bullpen after the final out.
"I wasn't going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead," Hinch said. "He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead."
Harris was Hinch's man for that seventh-inning spot. It's not hard to see why. The right-hander had been steady in the late innings all season, posting a 1.50 ERA in the regular season. And Hinch liked the matchups with Harris facing Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera - right-handed hitters who figured to struggle with Harris and his sharp breaking ball.
He just faltered at the worst possible time.
"I think I made a pretty good pitch," Harris said. "He just made a championship play for a championship team."
It was the second straight night Harris surrendered a home run after Rendon took him deep for two runs in Houston's 7-2 loss in Game 6. Harris hadn't allowed a run this postseason before that shot.
Will Gerrit Cole leave the Astros after World Series loss?
Cole started throwing in the bullpen again in the eighth, but by the ninth he was sitting down again, wearing a jacket and staring emotionless toward the field. He was simply a spectator to the last moments of an illustrious 326-strikeout season that could well earn him his first Cy Young - but that didn't get him a ring.
"We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me," Cole said. "And we didn't get to that position."
With that, Cole's future in Houston is up in the air.
When he was asked about his chances of coming back to Houston, he said, "I don't know."
The Astros are paying Cole $13.5 million, a bargain in the final year of his contract in Houston.
In the offseason, Cole is expected to attract suitors who will most definitely offer more than $13.5 million per year.
A day before the Astros began postseason play, owner Jim Crane was asked about Cole's impending free agency and whether the team can keep him.
"We haven't gotten there yet," Crane said on the timing of negotiations. "We'll see where the year ends up. I mean, it's too early to say right now."
At issue is the Astros' bloated payroll and their flirtation with the MLB's Competitive Balance Tax. According to MLB, "clubs that exceed the threshold by $20 million to $40 million are also subject to a 12 percent surtax. Meanwhile, those who exceed it by more than $40 million are taxed at a 42.5 percent rate the first time and a 45 percent rate if they exceed it by more than $40 million again the following year(s)."
In 2019, the salary threshold for teams is $206 million. Next year, it's expected to go up slightly by $2 million.
When asked after Game 7 how much Cole had thought about his future, he said, "Not much."
But whatever the outcome, he did have some kind words for the city of Houston when asked about his tenure with Houston.
"A lot of good friendships. Learned a lot about pitching from my teammates, from the pitching coaches and pitching staff, learned a lot more about the game from A.J., and it was just a pleasure to play for the city of Houston," said Cole, who wore a cap featuring the logo of his agent, Boras Corp., but no Astros gear.
Cole, who is in the money-making prime of his career, could command a yearly salary surpassing Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander's paychecks. Greinke remains in Houston for $35 million. Verlander is due $33 million next year.
If Cole is inclined to seek the payday that this Cy Young Award-caliber year has made for him, the Astros may more than likely be unable to keep him while staying under the luxury tax threshold.
The Astros have expressed wanting to stay under the tax limit.
Free agency starts Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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