CLEVELAND — Shane Bieber was the best pitcher in baseball this year, and it wasn’t close. Even in an abbreviated 60-game regular season, his numbers were eye-popping: In his 12 starts, Bieber never allowed more than three runs, nor did he fail to complete at least five innings.
Perhaps that was because he had yet to face an offense like that of the Yankees, who led the American League in scoring during the regular season.
While Game 1 of the new best-of-three Wild Card Series on Tuesday had the makings of a pitchers’ duel between Bieber and the Yankees’ ace, Gerrit Cole, it instead became a one-sided slugfest. It was Cole who pitched like baseball’s best — 13 strikeouts over seven stout innings — while the Yankees hung seven runs on Bieber, the presumptive A.L. Cy Young Award winner, and chased him from the game after four and two-thirds innings.
With their 12-3 dismantling of the fourth-seeded Indians, the Yankees are one victory away from advancing to the American League Division Series at a neutral site in Southern California. Masahiro Tanaka and Carlos Carrasco will face each other in Game 2 on Wednesday, but the difference may once again lie at the plate.
“Hopefully that’s a sign of more good things to come over the next three, four weeks,” said Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner of the Yankees’ offense after Tuesday’s victory.
The fifth-seeded Yankees staggered into the playoffs, with losses in six of their previous eight games. Despite their streakiness during the regular season, though, the Yankees led the A.L. with 5.25 runs a game. The Indians, however, were built around their pitching — an A.L.-best 3.29 earned run average — not their hitting, which was worst among the A.L. playoffs teams.
So when Bieber struggled with his normally pinpoint command and the Yankees’ powerful bats, their lineup couldn’t solve Cole. The Yankees took a 2-0 lead four pitches into the game thanks to a single by the Yankees’ leadoff hitter, D.J. LeMahieu, and two-run blast by Aaron Judge on a Bieber fastball right down the middle.
“We got pitches over the plate, mistakes, and we didn’t miss them,” Judge said of Bieber. “That’s a big part when you’re facing a Cy Young winner like that.”
The Yankees also resisted the urge to swing at Bieber’s many off-speed pitches, driving up his pitch count and nudging him into mistakes. Two Yankees who had down years at the plate this year — shortstop Gleyber Torres and Gardner — each drove in three runs. Torres drew a walk and scored on a Gardner double in the fourth inning, and then chased Bieber from the game with a two-run home run with two outs in the fifth. Bieber gave up nine hits and seven runs, including two home runs.
Torres said Gardner had given him some advice before the game that helped him clear his mind. Gardner had told him to forget the struggles of the previous two months, Torres said, and that “baseball gives you another opportunity.”
Gardner, who performed better in the closing weeks of the regular season, rewarded Manager Aaron Boone’s faith in him. Boone started Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee on the team, over Clint Frazier, who had became an everyday outfielder. Boone liked Gardner’s left-handed swing as a counterbalance in a lineup of mostly right-handers, in addition to Gardner’s experience with the left-field dimensions at Progressive Field. Gardner blasted a two-run home run in the seventh inning to further put the game out of reach.
“We kept our foot really on the gas all night,” Cole said.
So did Cole, who allowed just two runs. His pitches dived and darted and caught the edges. The only Yankee to strike out more batters in a postseason game was Roger Clemens, who fanned 15 in Game 4 of the 2000 A.L. Championship Series. Cole pitched like the ace the Yankees signed to a record $324 million contract in the winter.
“This is why we got him,” Judge said.