Bieber deals vs. Yanks: 'He was tremendous'

After previous struggles against NY, Cleveland ace strong in hard-luck loss

April 25th, 2021

A rematch of the 2020 postseason meeting between Gerrit Cole and Shane Bieber started all too familiarly for Bieber on Saturday night. The Yankees worked the Indians' right-hander to a high pitch count and threatened to take an early lead with two runners on base in the first inning.

But unlike Game 1 of last year’s American League Wild Card Series, Bieber came away with a clean opening frame, as he stranded the pair of baserunners with back-to-back strikeouts to end the inning.

Bieber dialed in the rest of the way, allowing two runs and striking out nine in seven innings, for a bounce-back showing against New York from his last postseason start, although Cleveland fell, 2-1, at Progressive Field.

“You want to go out there and you want to showcase yourself, showcase your strengths, showcase your stuff and you want to win,” Bieber said of his focus during a pitching duel. “That’s what I was trying to focus on tonight. Obviously, it didn’t end up that way, but it is what it is. It’s a long season, and we’re going to bounce back tomorrow.”

Though Bieber took his second loss of the year, he looked like himself on the mound: The pitcher who has set a record in nearly every outing this season while coming off a season in which he won the American League Cy Young Award and Triple Crown. But to the Yankees, he looked different.

Bieber had an 8.31 ERA in two previous regular-season starts against New York and allowed seven runs in 4 2/3 innings in last year’s postseason outing.

The 25-year-old blew past his AL Wild Card Series Game 1 strikeout total (seven) by the fifth inning. Bieber ended with nine punchouts (his most in a start against the Yankees), four hits allowed and three walks. He threw a career-high 119 pitches, and he was more effective than last year’s postseason start, throwing 74 strikes.

Bieber’s final chance to showcase how he’s improved against the Yankees was against the same hitter who ignited New York's offense during the 2020 postseason meeting with Bieber. Before DJ LeMahieu stepped to the plate with two outs and runners on first and second in the seventh, Cleveland pitching coach Carl Willis made a mound visit to settle down the right-hander.

“LeMahieu is a very respected, dangerous hitter, especially with runners in scoring position, ” Bieber said. “It was essentially, ‘Just bear down, this is your guy. We’re going to let you face him and get this last out. Execute some pitches, and give yourself a chance to get out of it.’ And fortunately, I did.”

It was a traditional Bieber outing in which he mixed his pitches in the strike zone and racked up strikeouts deep into the game. Aside from a pair of solo home runs by Aaron Hicks and Rougned Odor in the fifth, it was a formula for success.

“He pitched his heart out. I thought he was tremendous,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. “He gave up two solo homers in the fifth, one on a fastball he didn’t locate and another on a changeup. ... He fought his command at times, I thought, especially early, but he competed so much. Golly, that was a pretty damn good effort.”

But like last year's AL Wild Card Series Game 1, Cleveland's lineup couldn’t outscore New York with Cole on the mound for the Yanks. Cole’s outing was similar to that start, as he allowed one run on three hits and notched 11 strikeouts in seven innings. Last time against the Indians, he allowed two runs on six hits and struck out 13 in seven innings.

It was an ill-timed matchup for a Cleveland offense that has scored seven runs over its first three games against New York, each of which has been a Yankees win. The Indians took an early lead in all three games, but the Yanks have been quick to come back. Cleveland's only run on Saturday came on an Eddie Rosario RBI single in the fourth.

“[Cole's] kind of as advertised. We got on the board first, which was huge, and we didn’t have very many chances,” Francona said. “You saw two of the best pitchers in the game tonight."