In one corner of the American League's four-pronged Wild Card round, Shane Bieber and Cleveland's menacing pitching staff looked like the ultimate test for a New York Yankees offense that fell short of expectations during the 2020 regular season.
Or maybe not, as it turns out.
The first game of Cleveland's and New York's best-of-three Wild Card series ended in a rout in favor of the Yankees, who demolished Bieber in a 12-3 win at Progressive Field.
The Bronx Bombers started their scoring early when Aaron Judge ambushed Bieber for a two-run home run in the first inning:
That gave ace right-hander Gerrit Cole a cushion to work with, and he did his part by allowing only two runs in seven innings. Luis Cessa took it from there and closed out the win.
Through it all, most members of New York's starting lineup got in on the dozen-run fun.
Luke Voit collected an RBI double. DJ LeMahieu had an RBI single. Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner—the latter of whom got a surprise starting nod over Clint Frazier in left field—each homered and drove in three runs. Giancarlo Stanton also went yard with an absolute laser in the ninth inning:
Perhaps that's a bad omen, considering how that series ended. But if there's a corresponding good omen for the Yankees, it's that most of Tuesday's runs were scored on perhaps the best pitcher in Major League Baseball.
After breaking out as an All-Star in 2019, Bieber made himself the favorite for the 2020 AL Cy Young Award by going on an absolute tear through the competition. In 12 starts, he notched MLB-best marks with eight wins, a 1.63 ERA and 122 strikeouts.
Yet you'd never know any of this from watching the Yankees tee off on Tuesday, and they did so with a simple yet brilliant approach against Bieber. They went hunting for fastballs early in the count, thereby jumping on good pitches to hit before he could finish them with breaking balls in two-strike counts.
To be sure, it's not the biggest surprise that Bieber's excellence hit a wall upon facing the Yankees.
These Yankees did, after all, lead the American League with an average of 5.3 runs per game during the regular season. They also led in on-base percentage, and they finished second to the Chicago White Sox with 94 home runs.
There was nonetheless an air of disappointment hanging over the Yankees offense for much of the season, mainly stemming from how it didn't live up to the standards of last year's offense. The 2019 Yankees scored 5.8 runs per game and launched a near-record 306 homers.
It didn't help that Judge and Stanton—who finished second and first, respectively, in the American League and National League MVP voting in 2017—missed most of New York's 60-game slate, ultimately playing in a total of 51 games. Nor did it help that Gary Sanchez (.618 OPS) and Gleyber Torres (.724 OPS) came in well under their projections.
Even as New York's offense started coming together in September, cracks still existed. Notably, Judge, Stanton and Sanchez were cold to the tune of an aggregate .638 OPS.
Yet the Yankees still salvaged a 33-27 record and rolled into the postseason without any injuries to their offensive regulars. With this came the possibility that their lineup would finally click and become the juggernaut that was promised at the outset of 2020.
Obviously, one game isn't a definitive enough sample size to conclude that the Yankees are there. But if nothing else, they're on their way after what they did on Tuesday. That should fill them with hope, and the rest of the American League playoff field with worry.
Meanwhile, it certainly bears mentioning that the Yankees got all they could have asked for from their $324 million ace. Making his first postseason start in pinstripes, Cole allowed only six hits with no walks while punching out 13 batters—the second-most ever by a Yankees hurler in a playoff start.
So it goes for Cole, and in more ways than one.
His dominance on Tuesday was a continuation of a September in which he paired with catcher Kyle Higashioka and went off for a 1.00 ERA and 34 strikeouts in four starts. Likewise, it was more of the same stuff that he gave the Houston Astros last October, wherein he had a 1.72 ERA and 47 strikeouts in five starts.
The bottom line is that the Yankees couldn't have written a better script for their first postseason game of 2020. For its part, Cleveland surely couldn't have written a worse one.
Because it had the lowest-scoring offense of any of the AL's eight playoff teams, Cleveland's hopes of a deep playoff run rest pretty much entirely with a pitching staff that led the Junior Circuit with a 3.29 ERA in the regular season. Bieber, specifically, would have to lead the way.
The Yankees tore this plan to shreds on Tuesday. And while Cleveland might still put it back together again, it had better hurry. Whether it were to come on Wednesday or Thursday, one more loss in this series would end Cleveland's season.
In that scenario, the Yankees would move on with their confidence surely boosted by the reality that even the American League's best pitching staff was no match for their offense.