The first day of the 2020 MLB playoffs was, for the most part, a sedate offensive affair. Lucas Giolito took a perfect game into the seventh inning against the A’s, Blake Snell took a no-hitter into the sixth against the Blue Jays, and Framber Valdez might have saved Houston’s season with five innings of one-hit relief work against the Twins. Heading into Tuesday’s main event, a showdown between Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole, no team had scored more than four runs in a game, and another pitchers’ duel seemed to be on the way.
Cole pitched well against Cleveland, but Bieber couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain, tying his career high by allowing seven earned runs as the Yankees cantered to a 12-3 win. A series that looked like a fascinating contrast of styles at dinnertime appeared all but over four hours later.
Bieber, the consensus best pitcher in baseball all season, entered this game having held opponents scoreless in five of his 12 starts, having struck out 10 or more batters eight times, and having never allowed more than three runs or failed to make it through five innings. He led all American League players in ERA (1.63), strikeouts (122), and WAR (3.2). Even with Cole and an intimidating Yankees offense staring at him from the opposing dugout, Bieber’s dominance this season was so comprehensive that many expected him to take down the Bronx Bombers all by himself; any path to the divisional round for Cleveland started with Bieber delivering an astonishing performance in Game 1.
Bieber’s performance was indeed astonishing, in the way one would be astonished to open a tub of oatmeal and find it full of bugs. He finished with 4 2/3 innings, seven earned runs, and an emphatic loss on the scorecard. Aaron Judge took Bieber deep on the fourth pitch of the game, and the Yankees led from then on.
Very rarely does a starter pitch well and surrender seven earned runs. In addition to allowing the long ball to Judge, Bieber served up a home run to Gleyber Torres in the fifth, sending the former UC Santa Barbara Gauchos ace to the showers. Both dingers came on absolute meatball four-seamers in the middle of the zone. Bieber also left a four-seamer out over the plate to DJ LeMahieu for a game-opening line-drive single, and threw a middle-middle cutter to Luke Voit for an RBI double in the third.
For all the deserved attention that Bieber’s dive-bombing knuckle-curve received this year, his command has always been the pillar of his game. That was off in Game 1. Bieber threw only 62 of his 105 pitches for strikes, his fifth-worst ratio in 65 career starts, regular season and postseason. His curveball, a devastating weapon when he drops it out of the strike zone, sometimes drifted off the plate. And when Bieber worked behind hitters, as he did to LeMahieu and Voit, he got punished when he needed to throw a fastball for a strike. Bieber’s two fastballs—his four-seamer and cutter—are his only two pitches anyone has been able to hit this season. Leaving them over the plate to LeMahieu, Voit, and Judge brought predictable results.
It was probably unfair to expect Bieber to will Cleveland to victory all on his own. More than a century of baseball mythmaking, tales of Dizzy Dean and Bob Gibson and Madison Bumgarner, has fueled a desire for an implacable playoff ace who wins every time he takes the mound, no matter the stakes or the competition. It’s impossible for every star pitcher to live up to that standard—just ask Clayton Kershaw. And even if Bieber had allowed a mere three runs on Tuesday, his team still would have lost because Cole pitched so well: seven innings, 13 strikeouts, and two earned runs allowed. Josh Naylor, who was seeing the Matrix, went 3-for-3 against Cole. His teammates, at a combined 3-for-24 against the big right-hander, might as well have been wearing blindfolds.
While Bieber clearly wasn’t up to the task against the Yankees, the final score made his outing look worse than it was. Bieber induced nine ground balls, four of which turned into hits, two despite heroic diving stops by Francisco Lindor. And Bieber’s gaudy regular-season stats might have been inflated by a weak schedule. Because of this year’s regionalized schedule, Cleveland avoided the hard-hitting offenses on the coasts and dined out on weaker competition in the Midwest. Of Bieber’s 12 starts, only two came against a team that finished in the top half of MLB in wRC+. On Tuesday, he faced one of the best lineups in baseball (and also Brett Gardner); of course he performed worse against the stiffest competition.
And it’s not like Cleveland’s bullpen performed much better. Four relievers allowed a combined five runs over 4 1/3 innings, as the Yankees kept the conga line going well into the late innings and stifled even the faintest hope of a comeback.
Now Cleveland needs to win consecutive games against the Yankees without the aid of the best pitcher on its roster. The first of those comes Wednesday against Masahiro Tanaka, who over eight career postseason starts has an ERA of just 1.76. Given the massive offensive disparity between these clubs in Game 1, that looks like a nearly insurmountable obstacle. Which, I suppose, is why Bieber winning was so important.