I spent the 2020 regular season fearing a best-of-3 against the Indians. I wanted no part of Shane Bieber and the rest of the Cleveland rotation. I envisioned the Triple Crown-winning pitcher shutting down the Yankees in Game 1 of a best-of-3 and pushing them to the brink of elimination after one game. I spent a lot of time worrying about Bieber and the Indians for no reason.
When DJ LeMahieu hit Bieber’s third pitch of the game the other way for a single, I felt good. For two months, I constantly kept an eye on the Indians’ place in the standings, worrying about Bieber in a game like Tuesday’s, thinking he might be the right-handed Cliff Lee with his control and shutting the Yankees down the same way Lee did. LeMahieu’s leadoff single gave me immediate confidence.
When Aaron Judge hit Bieber’s fourth pitch over the fence, I thought the game was over. Bieber hadn’t experienced adversity on the mound all season and has experienced limited adversity in his career. His expression after Judge set the tone was that of someone who had only known dominating and who never expected for a second he wouldn’t once again dominate on Tuesday. It was very reminiscent of the way the Yankees knocked around Corey Kluber on the same field three years ago in a season in which he led the league in wins, ERA and WHIP and won the Cy Young award.
The Yankees couldn’t have started the postseason and a best-of-3 series any better. Even in an ideal world where I could write the script for how a Yankees postseason game would play out, I wouldn’t have been able to write up the way Game 1 played out. It was too perfect. Four pitches into the game, the Yankees had a two-run lead, and they kept tacking on to their lead, something they failed to do all regular season. They added a run in the third, two in the fourth, another two in the fifth, four in the seventh and one in the ninth. They rocked baseball’s best regular-season pitcher, putting 11 runners on base in 4 2/3 innings against him and forcing the Indians’ bullpen to get 13 outs. They received production from the entire lineup as every starter other than Kyle Higashioka scored a run and every starter other than Aaron Hicks recorded a hit. Gerrit Cole gave the Yankees seven remarkable innings (7 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 13 K, 1 HR) and the Yankees were able to get the final six outs from Luis Cessa, winning a postseason game without having to use any of their top relievers. Too perfect.
It’s been a long time since the Yankees went into a postseason series having a No. 1 starter who could go toe-to-toe with their opponent’s No. 1 starter. Last season, they couldn’t match Cole or Justin Verlander. In 2018, they couldn’t match Chris Sale. In 2017, they couldn’t match Verlander. Now it’s different. Now they have Cole, and while Bieber had the better season, Cole proved he is more able to rise to the occasion, turning his ability up to another octave with the stakes as high as he commented on them being. Cole was outstanding, striking out 13 Indians over seven innings and never for a moment did it seem as though the Indians might actually get to him. He gave the Yankees length, protected their early two-run lead and prevented Aaron Boone from having to think and kept Adam Ottavino, Chad Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen. Cole did what an ace with his reputation is supposed to do in October.
Yes, I vehemently disagreed with the Yankees’ Game 1 lineup, and while it worked out, I still wouldn’t use it in Game 2, but the Yankees will. Over the last few weeks, I said if Clint Frazier wasn’t going to be in the postseason lineup then I would actively root against the Yankees as hard as I always root for them. I refrained from taking that drastic measure on Tuesday night and never really had to question the Yankees’ lineup decisions because Judge gave the team an early lead, Gleyber Torres extended that lead and Cole did exactly what he was supposed to do for seven innings.
The result of the game doesn’t change the fact that Hicks shouldn’t be batting third, Brett Gardner shouldn’t be in the lineup over Clint Frazier and Kyle Higashioka shouldn’t be playing over Gary Sanchez.
Hicks had two walks and two strikeouts in the game. He reached base in two of his five plate appearances by the only way he knows how to reach base. It’s nice that Hicks scored two runs off his walks, but it’s not like he had to work for those walks. In both of the plate appearances resulting in walks, Hicks didn’t make contact on any swing. He didn’t even need to go up to the plate with a bat because four balls were thrown before three strikes, not because he fouled off good pitches or grinded out and won a 10-pitch at-bat. He was fortunate that Bieber’s impeccable control was off and that Adam Cimber isn’t any good.
Gardner didn’t deserve to play. He didn’t earn it. For a player whose entire career has been a collection of only extremely hot and extremely cold streaks with no consistency, Gardner’s hot streak to end the season somehow trumped everything Frazier had done for the Yankees this season. Ironically, Boone and the Yankees have admittedly said they don’t believe in players getting “hot” and they don’t believe in hot streaks, but Gardner was only in the lineup on Tuesday because of his most recent hot streak. Gardner was able to hit an opposite-field double off Bieber for his biggest Yankees moment since his single off Cody Allen in Game 5 of the 2017 ALDS, and he did add a two-run home run off Cimber, who isn’t very good, and even added a single off Oliver Perez, who is somehow still in the league. If Boone and the Yankees were willing to start Gardner against Bieber, it would have made no sense for them to then not start him for this entire series since the Indians would only be using right-handed starting pitchers. It would have made no sense for the Yankees to replace Gardner with Frazier in Game 2 given their decision in Game 1, but I truly think they were going to play Frazier in Game 2 until Gardner’s Game 1 performance. Now Gardner will be the starting left fielder against all right-handed starting pitchers this postseason.
The Yankees’ lineup worked out in Game 1 because the team’s stars played like stars in the game, not because of the decisions the Yankees made. Game 1 was was relaxing and enjoyable, a rare combination for a postseason game. What made it even more relaxting and enjoyable was that Boone never had to insert himself into the game. The Yankees’ offense and Cole took Boone completely out of the game, and kept him the dugout, chewing his gum and adjusting his mask. That’s where Boone needs to be and what he needs to be doing. The less Boone has to think and make decisions in high-leverage situations, the better off the Yankees will be. Inevitably, there will come a time this postseason when Boone will have a say on the outcome, and hopefully when the time comes, he will make the right decision.
The Yankees now have to go just 1-1 in two games against an Indians team that has already used and wasted their best card in order to advance to the ALDS. The Yankees have a completely rested bullpen and an offense coming off the team’s most impressive postseason offensive performance since Game 1 of the 2019 ALCS. They are set up as perfectly as any Yankees fan could dream of for Game 2 and they will be giving the ball to postseason legend Masahiro Tanaka on Wednesday night to end the series.
No Yankees fan could ask for a better pitcher in this situation with a chance for the Yankees to advance to the ALDS and into the bubble than Tanaka. I have complete faith and trust in Tanaka. He has never let the Yankees down in a postseason start, and I don’t expect him to in Game 2.
In what will be a rematch of Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS between Tanaka and Carlos Carrasco, the one thing that worries me is that Tanaka hasn’t given the Yankees much length this season and they haven’t let him give them much length this season. There’s a good chance Tanaka pitches as well as he always does in October for five innings and then Boone starts to decide how to get the last 12 outs. Boone will be quick to turn to his bullpen in this game with them being rested and a chance to close out the series and then four days off before the ALDS. I expect Tanaka to have it on Wednesday. Asking four relievers to all have it on the same night is a lot harder to expect.
One down, 12 to go.
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