In the first postseason start of his career, Cleveland Indians righthander Shane Bieber decided to do something he had not done all season: start the game with four straight fastballs. Bad idea. In just that eye blink, the New York Yankees led Game 1 of the wild card series 2-0, Bieber was guiding the baseball without velocity or conviction, and the shine from his Triple Crown season lost luster. From there it degraded further.
The duel between Gerrit Cole, the richest pitcher in baseball, and Bieber, the presumptive Cy Young Award winner, never materialized for even one inning. Cole in his own way pitched an homage to the late Tom Seaver. On the first day of postseason baseball since the great Seaver passed away, Cole joined him as the only pitchers with at least 13 strikeouts without a walk in a postseason game.
Cole was as brilliant as you would expect him to be against a weak-hitting Indians lineup and with Yankees manager Aaron Boone smartly letting Kyle Higashioka catch Cole instead of the erratic Gary Sánchez. (Actually, that one was an easy decision to make.)
Cleveland’s only path to victory was for Bieber outpitch Cole, which seemed possible given Bieber was 8-1 with a 1.65 ERA in 12 starts. This might be a good time to mention that Bieber went 5-0 with a 0.96 ERA in six starts against losing teams.
At his best, Bieber keeps the ball out of the middle of the plate, gets more swings than anybody on strike-to-ball breaking pitches (they track in the zone but dart out late), and averages 94.1 mph on well-placed fastballs. None of that happened Tuesday night in what became an overwhelming 12-3 Yankees win.
Bieber kept leaving fastballs over the fat of the plate. It started with DJ LeMahieu ripping pitch No. 3 for a single and Aaron Judge blasting No. 4 for a home run. Bieber had no extra gear on his heater. Four of the Yankees’ five run-scoring hits off Bieber resulted from below-average velocity fastballs. Bieber threw a first-pitch fastball to Luke Voit in the fifth inning that registered just 91.8 mph, his slowest fastball of the season. His lack of command and velocity was the story of the game.
“It seemed to me, he’s a young kid,” acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “He seemed too excited. His first postseason game. Fastballs kept coming back into the zone. His breaking ball was ball-to-ball.”
You are not beating the Yankees without good fastball command. Bieber was historically bad. He allowed seven earned runs on nine hits in less than five innings. Only five other American League pitchers ever did that in a postseason game: Phil Hughes (2010 ALCS), Josh Beckett (2008 ALCS), Chien-Ming Wang (2007 ALDS), David Wells (2002 ALDS) and Jack Morris (1992 World Series).
None did so in the year they won the Cy Young Award. But that’s the trompe l’oeil of this pandemic-shortened season. Nobody, including Bieber, had a historic year in 2020. Great seasons? Sure. But Bieber throwing 77 1/3 innings isn’t close to the 233 2/3 innings Johan Santana threw in 2006 to win the last pitching Triple Crown.
“I felt extremely prepared coming into the start,” Bieber said. “I fell behind the first hitter. That first inning didn’t go as planned. I just wasn’t as aggressive as I wish I could have been with my off-speed pitches in the zone and fastballs in.
“I was getting myself in some bad counts. When I made mistakes they took advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, Cole bullied the Indians with his fastball and looked every bit like the postseason white whale Yankees GM Brian Cashman has been hunting for years. The turning point to Cole’s season began on a hot afternoon in Atlanta on Aug. 26. Cole could not get on the same page with Sánchez. The more he shook signs, the more aggravated he looked. Four times Cole threw pitches in the strike zone that were called balls, thanks to Sánchez’s poor framing skills. Cole threw only 60% strikes, well below his season average of 66%. Cole gave up five runs in five innings. Sweat and frustration poured from within him. He looked exasperated.
In his next start, again with Sánchez behind the plate, Cole gave up four runs in five innings.
Cole is a technician on the mound. He studies hitters voraciously and talks about pitch sequences the way great composers do symphonic scores. He is demanding of his catchers, requiring them to keep up with his encyclopedic mind. It simply wasn’t working with Sánchez. Finally, on Sept. 5, Boone put Higashioka behind the plate for Cole. Everything changed. Cole now gets the strikes he is supposed to get, and maybe a few he should not. He doesn’t spend the night shaking multiple signs. Boone has been smart enough to leave the pitcher-catcher combo intact ever since. In five starts since the change, Cole is 4-1 with a 1.32 ERA with 47 strikeouts and five walks. Sánchez might not catch him again; certainly not this postseason.
In his 1973 playoff gem, Seaver lost to the Reds, 2-1, in the bottom of the ninth in NLCS Game 1. On his best days, like Game 1, Cole recalls the brilliance of Seaver with that rare combination of power and command at elite levels. Bieber, a premier strike thrower, had his own share of exquisite nights this pandemic season. But none of his best craftsmanship was on display Tuesday night. The setting was different. This was postseason baseball, when the stakes get higher, the margin of error gets smaller, and a 60-game regular season suddenly means nothing.