CLEVELAND -- It’s going to be the primetime matchup. Shane Bieber vs. Gerrit Cole has the potential to be one of the most exciting duels that we’ve seen across the Majors this season. It’s already created buzz in the Indians' clubhouse, and backstop Roberto Pérez knows that if fans were allowed at Progressive Field for Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series on Monday night, there wouldn’t be an empty seat in the house.
“Come on, man. If I was a fan, I'd pay anything [to see this],” Pérez said. “It's going to be fun. It's going to be two teams battling, but at the end, it's going to come down to pitching.”
The Tribe's offense has strung together enough runs to go 9-2 over their past 11 games, but collectively, their bats have ranked among the worst in the Majors this season. And while the Yankees boast a powerful lineup, they scored three or fewer runs in four of their final five games in the regular season.
So, like Pérez said, it’s probable that Game 1 (if not the entire series) will come down to pitching.
Cole has the postseason experience, owning a 2.60 ERA in 10 playoff starts dating back to 2013. While with the Astros, he beat the Indians in Game 2 of the '18 AL Division Series, holding them to one run on three hits with 12 strikeouts in seven innings.
This year, Cole led the Yankees in wins (seven), starts (12), complete games (two), innings (73) and strikeouts (94). And with a Cleveland lineup that finished with the fourth-lowest OPS in the Majors (.689), the Indians understand they have a tall task ahead.
“I think guys are ready, I've talked about facing him,” Pérez said. “It's going to be a challenge, man. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. We've just got to come out the way we've been swinging the bat for the last week or so. Don't try to do too much against him. Try to put the ball in play and get to deep counts and give us a chance to win the ballgame.”
While Cole cruised against the Indians’ lineup in the 2018 ALDS, Bieber was in the Tribe’s bullpen, waiting for the rare scenario in which the phone would ring for him to enter the game. But he never got the call. Two years later, Bieber’s slated to make his postseason debut after capturing the Major League Triple Crown this season. With all the attention on him, how will Bieber calm his nerves?
“I feel like that's just the mindset,” Bieber said. “I try and keep things simple, and that's what I'm going to do [Tuesday]. All that stuff, the season, it was special. I'll reflect on it another time. But we've got one goal in mind, and I got one goal in mind, and that's to go out there and win tomorrow and get us off on the right foot.”
Bieber had a year worthy of receiving AL MVP Award consideration as the 25-year-old posted the highest strikeout rate (41.1 percent) by a qualified starting pitcher in a season. In 2019, Bieber led Cleveland's starting rotation in his sophomore campaign when Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger were all sidelined with injuries and illnesses for significant periods of time, after Bieber had started the year as the club’s No. 5 starter.
If there’s anyone the Tribe has the most confidence in to get them off to a strong start in Game 1, it’s Bieber.
“He's our ace, we depend on him,” Pérez said. “We expect great things of him. When he gets on the mound, he gives us a chance to win ballgames. ... The guy's a stud. He's young, he has a great future. You look at the numbers, he won the Triple Crown, he led MLB in pretty much all categories. The guy is fun to watch.”
In order to advance to the ALDS, the Indians will likely have to rely heavily on their pitching staff, and their hardest matchup will come in Game 1. If Bieber can help lead them to a win over Cole and the Yankees tonight, the Tribe will have quite the momentum heading into Game 2 of the best-of-three series.
“I always say you have to be yourself. Don’t deviate,” acting Indians manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “The same thing goes for Shane Bieber. That’s why he’s probably going to be the [AL] Cy Young [winner], because he has remarkable stuff, but he just has to be himself. Don’t worry about who is on the other side. Just be yourself and execute. He’s done it all year, so hopefully he does it again.”