Upon signing Gerrit Cole, the Yankees expected to hold an advantage in Game 1 of any postseason series. Yet, $324 million wasn’t enough to buy the Yankees that privilege.
While Cole had a strong first season in pinstripes, no pitcher in baseball bested Indians ace Shane Bieber, the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award, who’ll face the Yankees in Tuesday’s wild-card series opener in Cleveland.
Finishing 8-1 with a 1.63 ERA and 122 strikeouts, Bieber became the first player to win MLB’s pitching triple crown since Johan Santana in 2006. The 25-year-old right-hander is the first Cleveland pitcher to accomplish the feat since Bob Feller in 1940.
Bieber struck out at least eight batters in each of his 12 starts, marking the second-longest such streak since at least 1901. Bieber also reached 100 strikeouts faster than any pitcher in MLB history (62 ¹/₃ innings) and led all pitchers with a 41.1 percent strikeout rate, while holding hitters to a .167 batting average and posting a 0.87 WHIP.
All, for the prorated salary of $231,000.
“I try and keep things simple and that’s what I’m gonna do,” Bieber said Monday. “All that other stuff, this season is special and I’m gonna reflect on it another time, but I got one goal in mind and that’s to go out there to win [Tuesday] and get us off on the right foot.”
While Cole was the first-overall selection in the 2011 MLB Draft out of UCLA, Bieber struggled to land a scholarship, joining UC Santa Barbara as a recruited walk-on. Bieber’s development in college earned him a fourth-round pick in 2016, and he debuted with Cleveland two years later.
While Cole will make his 11th playoff start, Bieber will pitch in the postseason for the first time.
“I think he’ll be OK. He’s probably got some butterflies, but I’ve talked to him already a little bit and he seems excited to go out there,” catcher Roberto Perez said. “He’s our ace. We depend on him. We expect great things of him always. … I’m excited for him to go out there and pitch the way he’s been pitching all year long.
“It’s impressive to watch for him being that young. He’s a leader of our team, of our pitching staff and he’s a great kid.”
In his remarkable leap from last season — when Bieber was 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA and was named All-Star Game MVP — Bieber never faced the Yankees. In one start in The Bronx last year, Bieber allowed five runs, five hits and two walks in 1 ²/₃ innings. In two career starts against the Yankees, Bieber holds an 8.31 ERA.
“There’s a couple guys you gotta be careful with. There’s obviously some real good talent … some obvious power in that lineup,” Bieber said. “I feel like you can compare them a little bit to some of the teams we faced recently and in our division. So I feel like we’re well-prepared to combat that.”
Few lineups compare with the Yankees. But fewer pitchers make offense as invisible as Bieber.
“He has remarkable stuff. He just had to be himself. Don’t worry about who is on the other side,” Indians acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “Just attack the zone and execute. He’s done it all year, so hopefully he does it again.”
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