How Yankees Are Planning to 'Challenge' Cleveland Indians in Wild Card Series

Max Goodman

As Yankees players and personnel arrived at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon for New York's regular season finale, bags were already packed for a lengthy road trip. 

At the time, the Bombers had no idea which city they were going to fly to after the game. A frenzied final day with postseason seeding implications across the league would have to transpire first.

When Yankees' manager Aaron Boone sat down in the Zoom room for his postgame managerial press conference, after a 5-0 loss to the Marlins, their opponent was set. 

The first stop in New York's pursuit of a championship is Cleveland.

"They’re a great club with tremendous starting pitching and a team that I know has been playing well these last couple weeks to finish strong," Boone said, providing his first impression of the Indians on Sunday. "We know we’ll have our hands full, we look forward to going there and getting a workout in [on Monday] and look forward to the challenge of having a good series."

Cleveland finished the season with a 35-25 record, good for second in the American League Central and the No. 5 seed in the playoffs. As Boone alluded to, Cleveland finished the year about as hot as any other club in baseball, winning nine of its last 11 games (including three walk-off victories in a span of four days).

Like the Yankees, who were streaky all season long, Cleveland's dominant stretch to end the regular season was fresh off an eight-game losing streak.

Ups and downs aside, Boone recognized how much of a legitimate threat Cleveland can be, especially with their star-studded roster in a best-of-three series where anything can happen.

"The strength of their starting pitching is much talked about, understandably so," he added. "They’re deep, obviously have some great star-type players. [Jose] Ramirez is having an MVP-like season. It’s going to be challenging."

That challenge will begin promptly as Cleveland jogs onto Progressive Field in Game 1 on Tuesday and ace Shane Bieber takes the mound. The Indians' right-hander—the undisputed favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award this season—has been arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball this year.

The right-hander led the Majors with eight wins, a 1.63 ERA and 122 strikeouts across 12 outings to win baseball's first Triple Crown for a pitcher since 2006.

"He's probably had the best year of any pitcher out there. It's been dominant so you know you got your hands full," Boone said on Monday. "The command of secondary to go along with elite command and velocity with fastball and has was really taken another step from what was an amazing year for him last year."

Factor in an MVP-caliber performance from Jose Ramirez, the ever-dangerous Francisco Lindor at shortstop and a dynamic back of the bullpen and this first round series is no walk in the park for New York. 

That's where Gerrit Cole comes in.

The Yankees' ace will toe the rubber in Game 1, making for one irresistible pitching matchup in prime time on the first day of the postseason. 

For Cole, who finished the year just behind Bieber in practically every statistical category, it's real recognize real.

"He's been locked in from the beginning," Cole said. "I think we all love good pitching matchups so I'm excited and it should be a good one."

Cole will make the third start of his career at Progressive Field on Tuesday night, a ballpark where he's given up just four runs in 14 innings pitched (2.57 ERA). This will be his fifth trip to the postseason in his eight-year career—in 10 starts, he's posted a 2.60 ERA in October. 

On the eve of his postseason debut in a Yankees uniform, Cole commended Cleveland's lineup, one full of "superstars" and "quality" switch hitters.

"I think by and large, they play well as a team, they take care of the little things in the details around the bases, in the box, moving runners over, being aggressive, working counts, there's a lot of walks, there's a lot of quality bats thrown up so just a solid lineup all around," he explained.

Opponent aside, the consensus all year long—unwavering through New York's best and worst times—is that when this team is on its game, they can play with and beat any team in baseball. 

"I’m honestly not really concerned who we’re playing or where we’re going," DJ LeMahieu said on Sunday. "I have a lot of confidence in us and if we’re playing the way we should be, it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing."

READ: Yankees' DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit Make History With League-Leading Performances

It's hard not to be confident when you've got a potent (and healthy) lineup as well as n ace like Cole on the mound to set the tone. That said, it all starts with the offense in Game 1. 

Can this club flush a tough stretch, losing six of the final eight games of the regular season, and start the playoffs strong by slugging to their potential?

To Boone, that's what the postseason is all about. Your best lineup against their ace under the lights with the world watching. It doesn't get much better than that.

"We love that challenge. You love the opportunity to compete against the best," Boone said. "We'll put together a game plan and hopefully go out and be able to ding [Bieber] a little bit."

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For more from Max Goodman, follow him on Twitter @MaxTGoodman. Follow ITP on Twitter @SI_Yankees and Facebook @SIYankees

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