So, Tuesday night didn’t exactly go as planned. The Cleveland Guardians may be down one game to none in their American League Division Series match-up with the New York Yankees, but all is far from lost. Cleveland is still 16-7 in their last 23 games dating back to the regular season and with a few changes or turns in fate, they can get themselves back in the W column in Fridays’s Game 2.
Let’s take a look at what the Guardians need to do to even the series.
Shane Bieber Just Needs to Be Himself
I take solace in the fact that while the Yankees are ahead in the series, they now have to face Bieber followed by Triston McKenzie in Game 3. Bieber has been lights out down the stretch, with a 2.02 ERA since August 1st including his 7 2/3 innings pitched, one run allowed performance against Tampa Bay in the Wildcard Series. Around that August 1st mark, Bieber started throwing his slider less and his cutter more- to the tune of 13 percentage points for each pitch. Six of the Yankees starters on Tuesday night were below-average hitters (based on wOBA) vs. cutters in 2022, including the great Aaron Judge himself. So, Bieber’s new pitch mix should bode well for the Cleveland ace.
However, in three career starts against New York, Bieber has an ERA of 5.74 in those regular season games. That does not include his poor performance (4 2/3 IP, seven earned runs) in the 2020 AL Wildcard Series. If the Yankees roll out the same starting nine that they used on Tuesday, their hitters have a slash line of .230/ .310/.500 against Bieber but have struck out 31% of the time. The high slugging percentage is a product of third baseman Josh Donaldson (he is also one of their better hitters vs. cutters), who has homered twice off of Bieber. The Bringer of Rain’s two dingers are the only home runs for any Yankee starter against the Guards’ righty. It goes without saying that Bieber will need to keep the ball in the yard. If he can do so then nothing should stand in his way of having a successful night. He has the talent to do it. He doesn’t need to muscle up or try to do anything crazy to be successful. Shane Bieber just needs to be Shane Bieber- mix his pitches, throw his cutter to both sides of the plate and stay on the corners. Better yet, he now has postseason success under his belt. All he needs to do is be himself. If he is, the Yankees will have their work cut out for them.
The Offense Needs to Execute with Runners in Scoring Position
It is being mentioned ad nauseam that the Guardians have only scored only four runs in three postseason games and that all of those runs have come from homers. Unfortunately, run-scoring opportunities have been few and far between. Cleveland has had runners in scoring position in only six of 33 playoff innings thus far. They are zero for 12 with RISP in the postseason with three strikeouts. In such situations, only two balls have been hit at the magic exit velocity of 95 mph or high which determines if a ball is “hard hit” or not. Both of those pieces of contact came in the same inning of Tuesday’s contest. They were Josh Naylor‘s fielder’s choice in the 3rd that resulted in him reaching when Amed Rosario safely got back to third base and Andres Gimenez‘s ground-out that closed the inning. Obviously, neither produced a run.
The Guardians had Cole teetering in that third inning but just couldn’t break the seal. Yankees Game 2 starter Nestor Cortes has had a great season all-around and will present another tough challenge. Cleveland will need to show more of the game plan that had Cole’s pitch count into the twenties in the first and sixties by the third inning. They will need to be the pesky team that loaded the bases in that same third and this time if they get their shot they better not miss. I think the Yankees bullpen is better than has been suggested by some, but the Guardians’ plan should be to prime themselves to score in the middle innings. Yankees manager Aaron Boone doesn’t seem very confident in that ‘pen right now. He will need to make a decision between extending Cortes deep into the game or taking the risk of trying to piecemeal the middle innings together with relievers. This decision just got more complicated with Thursday’s rainout as Boone may have to plan for keeping his relievers fresh through four consecutive gamedays. The Guards can do their part to put the pressure on by making Cortes work hard early by being selective and fouling a lot of balls off. It’s the aspect of their style that will play the best in Game 2. It could lead to more run-scoring opportunities as well, and you have to think that eventually that a ball is going to find a hole and the Guardians will bust loose. Clutch hitting is random enough that they aren’t going to keep struggling forever.
Keep Their Collective Cool
There’s a lot going on right now for this ball club. Coming off of a thrilling 15-inning marathon of a clincher on Saturday, they were in the Big Apple a mere three days later playing the Evil Empire in front of over 54 thousand Yankee fans. Like it or not, Yankee Stadium is baseball’s biggest stage. Despite the loss, I think the Guards played admirably. I don’t think the moment was too big for them and I don’t think the loss was because they look themselves out of the game. Still, it doesn’t get any easier in Game 2. Cortes is going to be hard to crack. Bieber is facing the best home run hitting team in the game. Myles Straw is going to continue to get grief from the crowd. Now they are contending with an odd schedule with multiple off days followed by one game and then more multiple off days. That doesn’t mean all is lost by any means but it means there is a real chance for things to spiral if the Guardians fall behind.
Quite frankly, I think this team is better than that. Everything about them to date screams that they are a resilient group. Once down 7.5 games in the division race. 28 last at-bat wins. A 28-17 record in one-run games. Seizing the division title by beating their rivals head-to-head. All these elements suggest that they won’t fluster easily. The fact of the matter is that even if they find themselves behind going into the middle innings, this team is never out of the game. The key will need to stick to the plan. Wear out Cortes. Don’t start trying to solve all your problems by going for the long ball. Play errorless defense. Be smart on the bases. In short, they need to stick to their identity. I think they will. Terry Francona and his coaching staff have a great handle on this ball club and should keep them relaxed and focused. Remember, we don’t rise to the occasion. The occasion is every day. Friday is a big game, but this is the Major Leagues. They’ve been playing big games all season.
It’s easy as a fan to see the lack of production over the first three games of the playoffs and allow doubt to start creeping in, but all is far from lost right now. The Guardians are one win away from really swinging the momentum in this first-to-three-wins series. For as unsettling as Tuesday’s loss can be perceived, the emotional boost that would come from a Game 2 win in the Bronx would be gigantic. Suddenly the Guards would be coming home with the opportunity to take care of business in their own backyard over the weekend. This is playoff baseball. There are going to be ups and downs. If it were easy, anyone could do it.
At this point, I make no guarantees. But if the Guardians can do three things that were hallmarks of their season: getting a strong outing from Shane Bieber, executing with men on and sticking to their hard-nosed brand of offense then they’re going to have a great chance. Quite frankly, that’s all you can ask for.