The Cleveland Indians make their return to the postseason this week as the fourth seed in the eight-team format specially implemented for this pandemic-shortened season. The Indians will host the series in Cleveland for the only time allowed in the bracket system, with the rival New York Yankees coming to town for a battle to two wins in the three-game American League Wild Card Series.
The Indians (35-25) used some home field magic over the course of the last week of the regular season, jumping from the seventh seed to the fourth seed on the final day of play with a big come-from-behind victory on Sunday to take two of three from the Pittsburgh Pirates on the heels of a four-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox. The better results down the stretch earned the team the right to host the first round Wild Card Series from Progressive Field, as opposed to having to travel for road matchups in Chicago, Minnesota, or Oakland that may not have been as favorable for the Tribe.
The Yankees (33-27) spent nearly half of the season in first place, but New York operated with a veritable MASH unit on the field for the majority of the two-month playing schedule. The Yankees have been team-streak for much of the last six weeks, as a six-game winning streak in the second week of August was followed by a seven-game skid that knocked the team out of first place for good. They opened September by dropping eight of ten before ripping off ten straight victories, but then concluded the season by losing six of their final eight. Their schedule was interrupted during the year by several COVID complications by pending opponents, which led to seven different doubleheaders over the year.
Tuesday, September 29, 7:08 PM ET
RHP Gerrit Cole (7-3, 2.84 ERA) vs. RHP Shane Bieber (8-1, 1.63 ERA)
Cole was one of the biggest offseason transactions of last winter, leaving the Houston Astros after two seasons there for a big payday in the Bronx. He got out of the gate strong before running into some problems late in August, but a battery mate change may have sparked some better results for him as he went 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in four starts in September. He allowed a run on five hits in seven innings for a win his last time out against Toronto and had the same line, but with three hits given up instead, in a win against them six days earlier. The 30-year-old and former first overall pick in 2011 is 6-4 in ten career playoff starts with a 2.60 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP. Half of that work came last season with the Astros, which he provided with a 4-1 record, a 1.72 ERA, and a 0.87 WHIP through three postseason series.
Bieber wrapped up what could be a unanimous Cy Young Award winning season with a strong no-decision against the Chicago White Sox last Wednesday. In that start, he allowed an unearned run on two hits while walking three and striking out ten. In addition to his likely hardware coming soon, he also became the first pitcher since Johan Santana in 2006 to claim the Major League’s Pitching Triple Crown, an unofficial award recognizing a pitcher who leads his cohort in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. Bieber was tops in both the American League and Major League Baseball in all categories, tied with Chicago’s Yu Darvish with eight wins while leading the ERA race by a tenth of a point over former teammate Trevor Bauer and holding an 18-strikeout edge over New York’s Jacob deGrom. This will be the first postseason start of Bieber’s career.
Wednesday, September 30, 7:08 PM ET
RHP Masahiro Tanaka (3-3, 3.56 ERA) vs. RHP Carlos Carrasco (3-4, 2.91 ERA)
Like most Yankees players, Tanaka missed some time during the regular season after opening the campaign on the injured list with a concussion. He had a handful of rough starts in the regular season once he rejoined the rotation, but most notably he was unable to make it deep into contests, completing six innings or more just twice in his ten starts. His last time out on the road against Toronto, he allowed five runs (three earned) on eight hits with three walks in just four innings. The walks and hits surrendered were both season highs. He has shined in the postseason in many of his opportunities, posting a 5-3 career mark in eight starts with a 1.76 ERA and a 0.78 WHIP, including a win against the Indians in seven shutout innings in 2017.
Carrasco ended his season on a strong note, earning himself the start in Game Two over some of the younger arms on the staff. After a rough stretch in mid-August, Carrasco locked in and got through some command issues, posting six straight quality starts to close out his season (despite a 1-1 record in those contests). Half of his starts this season came against teams which reached the postseason this year. He will make his third career postseason appearance after making a start in each of the 2017 and 2018 seasons for the Tribe. In that start in 2017 against the Yankees, he worked five and two-thirds scoreless innings, giving up three hits and three walks while striking out seven in a no-decision. He gave up two runs in five and one-third innings in his 2018 start against Houston.
Thursday, October 1, time TBD *if necessary
TBD vs. RHP Zach Plesac (4-2, 2.28 ERA)
The Yankees had not finalized their Game Three starter at the time of this story.
Plesac scuffled a couple of times in his last few starts, but overall had a strong second season in the Majors (if ignoring his starts lost due to his poor off-the-field choices which led to a midyear demotion to Lake County). He gave up four runs on four hits with a pair of walks and seven strikeouts in his final start of the season last Thursday against Chicago in a no-decision, pushing his ERA from 1.85 to 2.28 in a 3-1 month overall. He averaged more than a strikeout per inning for the season and held opposing hitters to a .191 average with a 0.80 WHIP in his 55 1/3 innings of work. Like Bieber, this will be the first postseason start of Plesac’s career, if the Indians need him to make it.
HEAD TO HEAD
Given the unique regular season format utilized this year, the Indians and Yankees did not play during the regular season for the first time in their histories.
If it counts for anything, the Indians held a slight 4-3 advantage over the Yankees in their last head-to-head season series in 2019, with Cleveland outscoring New York in a decisive 53-31 advantage.
The two clubs first met in the second week of June a year ago, with the Indians winning the first two games of the set before dropping a 7-6 decision in ten innings in the series finale. They met again in mid-August, with the Indians winning in large fashion, 19-5 and 8-4, in the bookend games of the four-gamer from New York, while losing 3-2 and 6-5 in the middle games.
TRANSACTIONS and INJURY NOTES
Logan Allen (P) – optioned to team’s alternate training site (9/27)
Adam Cimber (RP) – recalled from team’s alternate training site (9/27)
Adam Plutko (P) – optioned to team’s alternate training site (9/29)
Jefry Rodriguez (P) – 60-day injured list (9/9) – right shoulder strain
Bradley Zimmer (OF) – recalled from team’s alternate training site (9/29)
New York (AL):
Ben Heller (RP) – 60-day injured list (9/22) – right biceps nerve injury
Tommy Kahnle (RP) – 60-day injured list (7/31) – right UCL injury
James Paxton (SP) – 60-day injured list (8/21) – left flexor strain
Luis Severino (SP) – 60-day injured list (6/28) – Tommy John surgery
OFFENSE IS NEW YORK’S STATE OF MIND
The Yankees have arguably the top offense in the American League. Their 315 runs and 301 RBI were tops in the junior circuit and their 94 homers were second to Chicago’s 96. As a club, they were sixth in overall batting average, tops in on-base percentage, second in slugging, and number one overall in the league in OPS with a .789 number.
By contrast, their pitching landed often in the middle of the pack in the league.
DJ LeMahieu had a historic year in the Yankees infield. His .364 batting average led the American League, winning him his second career batting title. In doing so, he became the first player in the modern era to win one in each league, following his win in the National League with the Colorado Rockies in 2016. He was a well-rounded threat, posting a .421 on-base percentage and .590 slugging mark (OPS of 1.011) with ten doubles, two triples, ten homers, and 27 RBI while drawing a nearly 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate.
Luke Voit went on a home run hitting tear with his teammates in September, finishing as the game’s top masher with 22. The power production helped him accumulate 52 RBI, good for second in the AL and fourth in all of baseball. He had just five doubles and will strike out, averaging nearly one per game, in line with most big sluggers in the game.
Injuries limited quite a few of the stars in the Yankees lineup over the year. Aaron Judge played in just 28 games due to a pair of trips to the injured list with a right calf strain. He posted a .257/.336/.554 slash with three doubles, nine homers, and 22 RBI. Giancarlo Stanton was on the field in just 23 games, providing a .250/.387/.500 line with seven doubles, four homers, and eleven RBI while restricted for five weeks with a left hamstring strain.
Gary Sanchez’s woes at the plate and in the field have cost him playing time as he will not make the Game One start with Cole on the mound, replaced instead by Kyle Higashioka. Sanchez hit just .147 in 49 games with 64 strikeouts. He had four doubles, ten homers, and 24 RBI when making contact.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
Jose Ramirez was named the American League’s Player of the Month for September after his torrid stretch of play at the plate. Heating up just in time for the playoff push, Ramirez landed himself at or near the top of the AL leaderboard across a handful of key categories. In 23 games, he posted a .366/.453/.841 triple slash (1.294 OPS), dropping in 19 of his 30 hits in the month for extra bases. In September, his nine doubles and ten homers were second-highest in the Majors. His 24 RBI were third-best in the league and fifth overall in MLB. His .366 average was second to Toronto’s Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (.368) in the AL, his .453 OBP was tops in the league, and both his .841 slugging and 1.294 OPS were best in all of baseball.
Ramirez’s overall numbers for the season make him a very legitimate AL MVP candidate. In addition to leading the Majors in fWAR, he provided the Cleveland lineup with a .292/.386/.607 slash at the plate for a .993 OPS, fifth-best in baseball and second to LeMahieu in the junior circuit. The versatile threat was also one of just ten players to steal at least ten bases on the year.
Cesar Hernandez remained a steady force in the Indians lineup throughout the month. He hit .299 with a .340 OBP and .412 slugging mark with eight doubles, tied for the fifth-most in the league in that span. He was one of only three players across the Major League landscape to reach the 20-double mark on the year, leading his league by four. He finished a very solid regular season with 58 games played and a .283/.355/.408 slash atop the Tribe lineup.
Jordan Luplow began to heat up at the plate in September but his playing time in the postseason may be limited with the Yankees looking to a pair of right-handers at the minimum to open the series, leaving him likely relegated to pinch-hitting appearances. In 32 at bats over 12 games in September, he hit .313 with a .389 OBP and .594 slugging mark with four doubles, a triple, one very clutch homer, and five RBI.
The Indians offense had perked up some at times in September as the team landed in the middle of the league’s leaderboard in most statistics. On the plus side, they were hardly the only AL playoff team to be in the middle or bottom third in many of those stats, joined in the middle by Chicago and ahead of the likes of Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Houston.
While the loser will go home, the victor of the best-of-three series will have some traveling to do. The American League Division Series is scheduled for play at Petco Park in San Diego, California, beginning October 5.
The winner of the series between the Indians and Yankees will play the victors of the matchup pitting the number one seeded Tampa Bay Rays against the eighth-seeded Toronto Blue Jays in the ALDS.
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images