The old adage that postseason baseball is a wholly different animal is axiomatic. Baseball fans and writers can point to the playoff woes of Cy Young pitchers – such as Clayton Kershaw and David Price – and all-star sluggers – such as Robinson Cano – as a testament to that fact. And there are plenty more examples of supremely great pitchers and hitters, folding like a deck chair in high-stakes games where there is little margin for error. Hell, even the great Willie Mays hit .182 in his first postseason appearance and hit rock bottom when he bounced into three double plays in a Game Four loss – still a Major League record.
Last night saw another unfortunate star’s name etched onto the list of wretched postseason performances. Shane Bieber came into the Wild Card Series against the New York Yankees leading Major League Baseball in almost every meaningful statistical category for pitching. He’s a slam dunk to win the Cy Young after wrapping up the first pitching triple crown in the league since 2006 (Johan Santana). But none of that matters as soon as postseason baseball arrives. Everything resets, some teams and players flip the switch, others wilt under the pressure. Bieber fell into the latter category.
If one wants to go a little easier on Bieber, it is worth noting that the Yankees approached him perfectly. From the start, they were spitting on the curveball, which has been so devastating all season long for Bieber and attacking the fastball early in counts. LeMahieu, the 2020 AL Batting Champion, shot a single to right field at the top of the first inning. Then, on only the fourth pitch of the game, Aaron Judge followed up with a 399-foot blast to put New York up two, early. The pitches that were hit were flat, poorly located four-seamers that were up and middle of the zone. This would be the recurring theme for Bieber’s first career playoff start.
The Yankees were aggressive early in counts and focused fully on punishing Bieber’s fastball while laying off his breaking balls. To illustrate how effective the strategy was for the Bronx Bombers: all but one of the hits, that scored the seven earned runs Bieber allowed, came off a four-seamer that caught a giant chunk of the plate. The majority of those scoring hits came on the first or second pitch of the count. As a result, the Tribe’s ace only lasted 4.2 innings, giving up seven earned runs on nine hits to go with two walks and seven strikeouts (his lowest strikeout total on the year).
The Yankees stuck with the strategy that served them well against the 2019 All-Star Game MVP and proceeded to smack the Indians bullpen around like a pinata. Across the full nine innings, all four Yankees home runs came off a fastball (three were launched off the first, second & third pitch in the at-bat, respectively). Nine of their 12 runs were scored on hits that came off a fastball. Adam Cimber, who has been a liability since acquired from the Padres in 2019, was torched for three runs in two-thirds of an inning. One of those runs was an inherited run allowed by Cam Hill, who was stung for two home runs in his two-innings of work. Phil Maton and Oliver Perez managed combined for two scoreless frames on either side of Cimber and Hill’s horror show in relief.
The offensive deluge was led by Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner, who combined to go 7-9 and drive in half the Yankees’ runs. Both launched two-run home runs to left-center field, with Judge and Stanton accounting for the other two long balls.
Can Bieber’s performance be put down solely to postseason jitters and adrenaline affecting command and sharpness? Not exactly. The Yankees have had Bieber’s number since he entered the league. Arguably his worst start in 2019 came against the Yankees when he lasted just 1.2 innings and gave up five earned runs (tied for season-high) in a 7-6 loss in Cleveland on June 6. New York jumped on his four-seamer early in counts that day, too. With Gardner hitting a two-run shot and Voit a two-run double, both on the first pitch of the at-bat.
I would also call into question Perez’s game-calling, once it became evident what the Yankees were doing, and Sandy Alomar’s decision to leave Bieber out there in the fifth until New York had smacked the last drop of juice from the kid when he clearly did not have much going his way.
In hindsight, given his previous struggles against the vaunted Yankees lineup, Game One was never going to be an exemplar of the stellar Bieber performances Indians fans have become accustomed to over the past two seasons.
The Indians’ hitters, for their part, put up a valiant effort against Gerrit Cole. A guy who has, arguably, been the best pitcher in the league over the previous two seasons before signing his mega deal with New York. They scraped two runs on six hits across seven innings while striking out 13 times against Cole. Their third run came in the ninth inning off Luis Cessa. 99 times out of a 100, with Bieber on the bump, that would be enough offensive output to put opponents away.
Josh Naylor was the lone star man for Cleveland going 4-4 with a solo home run and two doubles in his first-ever postseason appearance. Jose Ramirez (double) and Tyler Naquin (single) accounted for the other two RBI, while DeShields and Hernandez accounted for the other two knocks. Both singles.
The Tribe doesn’t have long to lick their wounds. Game two is tonight at 7 p.m. EST and it is ‘do or die’ for the Indians. Carlos Carrasco will start on the hill for the Tribe. A somewhat surprise move for many fans who expected Plesac to get the nod for Game Two. Carrasco had some struggles in August but rebounded to finish the season strong. In 32 September innings, he allowed just seven runs, while holding opponents to a .216BA and 1.07WHIP. Hopefully, his stellar September continues tonight and the Indians can force a decisive game three on Thursday.