A Cy Young favorite stumbles as pitching rules the day in MLB postseason

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·MLB columnist
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Near the end of a long day of baseball, in which four games and much of the weight of the previous two months had been crammed into eight hours, Shane Bieber turned and followed a ball carrying over his left shoulder, then over his right. The catcher came to see him. So did the pitching coach. Before Bieber was a lineup of New York Yankees, suddenly capable again, hunting fastballs. Behind him, his outfielders ran dozy pass patterns. His infielders skidded across the dirt, hoping to save him, to save the Cleveland Indians.

He’d given up four earned runs for the first time this season. Then five earned runs for the first time since the middle of last summer. Then seven for the first time since the eighth start of his rookie season, more than two years back. The fifth inning of his first career postseason start wasn’t yet over.

The manager came for him when one last fastball disappeared into the bleachers, his 105th pitch already, and Bieber, the game’s finest pitcher in a runty season that nevertheless required equal parts precision and resilience, was for 90 minutes on day one of the playoffs searching and fighting for something like his usual self.

“I just wasn’t as aggressive as I wish I would have been with my offspeed stuff in the zone and maybe some fastballs in and just challenging these guys a little bit more,” he said later, predictably subdued. “I felt like I fell behind quite a bit and forced myself into some bad situations and some bad counts. All that on top of not having my best stuff and making mistakes amounted to what came out of tonight. No excuses. It was not the first start that we wanted to get out with. And me personally as well.”

His manager, Sandy Alomar Jr., who is filling in for Terry Francona, offered, “He’s a young kid. Seems to be he was too excited. … He was the best pitcher in the American League this year. He had a bad game tonight.”

Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Shane Bieber (57) walks to the dugout after being removed from the game in the fifth inning of Game 1 of an American League wild-card baseball series against the New York Yankees, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
Shane Bieber, the likely AL Cy Young winner, leaves his start against the Yankees after allowing seven runs. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

There are the mood swings of postseason baseball, of course, those being a few misplaced fastballs thrown to the wrong hitters at the wrong time, in this case Yankees such as Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres on the verge of October. He’d recorded 14 outs, not near enough, not when he was to share the mound with Gerrit Cole, the two making up maybe the shiniest matchup of the entire month. Notions of that dissipated with the game’s fourth pitch — Bieber’s — which … landed in the bleachers.

Now, a sure conversation point in the coming weeks will be where pitchers and batters had spent their summer months. Among the league’s concessions to the coronavirus was a redrawn schedule that limited teams to their geographic areas. The East stayed in the East, the Central in the Central and the West in the West. The Central divisions, where Bieber pitched, had only one team — the Chicago White Sox — hit for better than the league average. Eight of the lowest 12 team OPS marks were in the Centrals. Bieber could not pick his opponents, though if he did he could hardly have done better, and so there will be conclusions drawn.

Except Tuesday would otherwise be the wrong day for that, because were Bieber suddenly defenseless against the bats of the East, then how to explain, well, Bieber over about every other day of his career, but also White Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito on the same day in Oakland, and Minnesota Twins right-hander Kenta Maeda on the same day against the Houston Astros. Neither is the Yankees, but neither is a skate through a couple months of the Centrals either.

And if it seemed odd to find Bieber unable to keep the Yankees from their bat barrels, it was especially confounding given the context of the rest of a day over which pitchers dominated.

Why pitchers could rule the 2020 postseason

For the first time in postseason history, two pitchers took no-hitters past the fifth inning on the same day.

In his first playoff start, 26-year-old Giolito carried a perfect game into the seventh inning against the A’s. In his second postseason start, 27-year-old Blake Snell had a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays. Framber Valdez, the 26-year-old Houston Astro, took the baseball to start the fifth inning in Minnesota and did not allow a hit until there was an out in the ninth.

[ Check out our favorite MLB playoff gear from Breaking T ]

In the first three of four games Tuesday, Giolito, Zack Greinke, Maeda, Snell and Matt Shoemaker combined for 24 ⅔ innings, nine hits, two runs, nine walks, 25 strikeouts. That’s an 0.73 ERA. Those six offenses — the Astros, Twins, A’s, White Sox, Rays and Blue Jays — batted .175, struck out 54 times and walked 15 times. Only Jesús Luzardo, the A’s left-hander spending his final hours as a 22-year-old, proved vulnerable. Then Cole set up opposite Bieber, threw seven innings, gave up two runs, struck out 13 and left with an 11-2 lead.

“This is baseball,” Indians third baseman José Ramírez explained, his club now hours from playing an elimination game. “Things are going to happen.”

If the theme of the 2020 postseason is to be something other than chaos, in which the champion will have survived the pandemic and four playoff series and won 13 games of a possible 22, it might actually be pitching. As many as six more aces (depending on one’s definition) would start Wednesday across eight games, including those intentionally held back (Hyun-jin Ryu for the Blue Jays and Chris Bassitt for the A’s) and those opening their team’s series (Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer, Atlanta’s Max Fried, Miami’s Sandy Alcantara, Los Angeles’ Walker Buehler). All but one — Ryu — will face lineups that haven’t seen them in more than a year, which seems particularly advantageous for the pitcher.

The game reacts to them. Sometimes it hits .175 across three games. Sometimes it spends a solid 90 minutes on its bat barrels against the guy with the 1.63 ERA, the guy who in a month will be the American League Cy Young Award recipient, the guy who looked dolefully into a camera late Tuesday night and said he’d, “Learn from it, be better for it.”

Meantime, things are going to happen.

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