In what may very well be his only start of the postseason, the Shane Bieber who laid waste to AL hitters en route to pitching’s Triple Crown did not show up against the Yankees on Tuesday night. Cleveland’s young ace and assumed Cy Young winner couldn’t find any pitch that worked against the Yankees’ big bats, allowing more than twice as many runs as any other start this season to help New York win 12-3 on the road and put themselves within one game of the ALDS.
Bieber’s 12 starts in the regular season constituted one of the most dominant stretches a pitcher could dream of having, and was a clear step up even from a 2019 where he finished fourth in Cy Young voting. But he hadn’t yet faced the Yankees this year. The Bronx Bombers have had issues with consistency and health in this shortened season, and their 33-27 record is only sixth-best in the AL. But when their batting order is able to connect—and particularly when it includes Aaron Judge, who they’ve only had in about half of their games this year—it feels like they can run up the score with ease. That’s exactly what they did last night.
The first day of the playoffs was defined by great pitching, and a matchup pitting Gerrit Cole against Bieber looked like it would be more of the same. But from the very first at-bat, Bieber struggled to get guys out. He threw two balls to DJ LeMahieu and then gave up a single; then, on his fourth pitch of the game, Aaron Judge reminded everybody that he is the big boy who mashes big taters. Judge, who hadn’t hit a dinger since since Aug. 11, got the juiciest fastball you’ll ever see right down the middle, and he took it 400 feet into right-center to give the Yankees an early lead they would never relinquish. It was the first home dong that Bieber had allowed all year, and it set the tone for an evening in which Cleveland’s top hurler always seemed one step behind his adversaries.
“That’s why I get out of bed in the morning, to get that pitch,” Judge said. “It’s about trying to hunt those mistakes. A guy like that who throws most of his pitches for strikes, has good offspeed, gets a lot of strikeouts on his offspeed, anytime he leaves something over the plate, it’s just a reaction.”
Cole, on the other side, struck out 13 batters and walked none across seven comfortable innings. But Bieber never regained control of his night after that booming shot by Judge, as his opponents forced him to throw 105 pitches across just 4.2 innings of work. Though he got through the second inning with the score still just 2-0, the Yankees’ lineup kept pricking him after that. Luke Voit had an RBI double in the third that kept Bieber unsteady, and then two more guys crossed the plate in the fourth. Finally, after a Gleyber Torres two-run shot in the fifth, Bieber left the game, ruing his failure to improve his stuff as the night went on.
“There have been starts this year where I didn’t have my best stuff, and I was able to make adjustments throughout the game,” he said. “Tonight, I just wasn’t able to do that.”
It’s nothing new to see dominant pitchers slip up in the postseason—just ask Clayton Kershaw—but Bieber’s complete inability to live up to the expectations set by all his other starts this summer has significantly more dire consequences for Cleveland than a typical first postseason loss. With an elimination game already happening tonight, they could very well be out of the postseason less than 30 hours after they entered. Given that Cleveland has already played their best hand—starting a guy who, this year, is the closest thing possible to a guaranteed win—it’s tough not to feel like they just got unlucky at the wrong time.
Said Bieber’s teammate, Tyler Naquin, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all robots?”