CLEVELAND -- The Indians and the Yankees will meet in the first round in the playoffs for the second time in the past four seasons. This time, the expanded playoff format will have the two teams meet in a three-game American League Wild Card Series after the two clubs went the distance in the five-game AL Division Series in 2017, with the Yanks coming out on top.
Four seasons later and both clubs boast plenty of new faces. Cleveland won’t have to worry about Didi Gregorius, and New York won’t have to pitch to Jay Bruce. But with 2019 AL Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole and '20 MLB Triple Crown winner Shane Bieber slated to toe the rubber in Game 1, the excitement that could come with the series seems promising.
Cleveland boasts one of the strongest starting rotations in the Majors, finishing the regular season with an MLB-best 3.17 ERA. Hosting New York, which has gone 11-18 on the road this season, could prove to be an advantage for the Tribe. But the Indians' offense has struggled all season, owning the fourth-lowest OPS (.689) of all 30 clubs, which could benefit the Yankees with Cole on the mound.
Now that the matchup is set, here are some of the questions entering Game 1:
When is the game and how can I watch it?
Game 1 will be played tonight at 7 ET on ESPN.
Yankees: DJ LeMahieu finished the year with the top batting average (.364) in the Majors, and Luke Voit paced the big leagues with 22 homers. They have stepped up to power the offense during a season in which Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton missed a considerable chunk of time due to injuries, and Gary Sánchez has seen his stock fall with a disappointing campaign. Kyle Higashioka got the starting nod behind the plate to catch Cole in Game 1.
Indians: The Tribe has remained consistent with its top five hitters this season after shifting Francisco Lindor back into the leadoff spot. Tyler Naquin and Josh Naylor got the starting nods in Game 1 in right and left field, respectively, with Delino DeShields in center.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Yankees: Cole (7-3, 2.84 ERA) signed the richest contract issued to a free-agent pitcher this past December, understanding managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner's expectation that it would result in multiple championships. This marks the beginning of that quest, coming off a regular season in which Cole paced the Yankees in wins, starts (12), complete games (2), innings (73) and strikeouts (94).
Indians: Bieber (8-1, 1.63 ERA) is fresh off earning the MLB Triple Crown and is on the fast track to taking home the 2020 AL Cy Young Award. In his rookie season in '18, Bieber was in the Tribe’s bullpen, ready to be an option in relief if the team would’ve needed him. Instead, he was slated to start Game 4, but the Indians were swept by the Astros in three games. Now, he’s itching to toe the rubber for the first time in the postseason after leading the Majors in wins, ERA, strikeouts (122) and posting the highest strikeout rate by a qualified starting pitcher in a season (41.1).
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Yankees: Left-handers Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman give the Yanks a pair of bona fide closers at the back end to handle the final six outs, and perhaps more. Right-handers Chad Green and Adam Ottavino are among the more trusted choices for setup and middle-relief duties.
Indians: The Indians have relied heavily on closer Brad Hand, who went a perfect 16-for-16 in save opportunities this season. While he’ll be working the ninth, the Tribe has turned to rookie James Karinchak to bridge the gap to Hand in the eighth. Though he doesn’t have much experience, all Karinchak needs is his fastball command to pair with his nasty curveball. In 26 innings, he recorded 50 strikeouts. Nick Wittgren and Oliver Pérez also have become trusted relievers for Cleveland.
Are there any relievers who are unavailable?
Any injuries of note?
Yankees: Don’t be surprised if you see Voit hobble down the baseline. The slugger has been dealing with what manager Aaron Boone refers to as “foot stuff,” which is likely plantar fasciitis. It hasn’t seemed to affect his production. Judge and Stanton missed large parts of the season with soft-tissue injuries, but both have been playing regularly over the past 1 1/2 weeks.
Indians: The only player who will be questionable is Naquin. He fouled a pitch off of his foot on Saturday and was kept out of Sunday’s lineup. Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said that Naquin was available on Sunday but still sore.
Who is hot and who is not?
Yankees: LeMahieu has been ridiculously hot, finishing the regular season on a 30-for-82 (.366) tear in his final 20 games with eight doubles, six homers and 15 RBIs. Judge’s contact has been soft since returning from the injured list on Sept. 16, going 7-for-36 (.194) with 13 strikeouts.
Indians: Ramírez made a strong push at the end of the season to make sure his name would be considered for the AL Most Valuable Player Award. In his final 16 regular-season games, he had hit .417 with a 1.452 OPS, including a 2-for-3 performance in Sunday's season-finale win. On the contrary, Reyes has struggled of late after having a red-hot August. He launched a home run on Sept. 1 and went 100 plate appearances without a long ball until the sixth inning on Sunday.