– John Fanta

There is star power. There is great pitching. THERE ARE MIDGES! Just kidding, but there might be, who knows (especially in 2020)? 

There’s no mistaking that the Yankees and Indians Wild Card series is one of the most compelling first round matchups in Major League Baseball’s revamped postseason format. Any series featuring the Bronx Bombers would be for a variety of reasons, from television ratings to their brand. 

But, these aren’t your dad’s New York Yankees, or your grandpa’s.

Could they turn it on and make a postseason run? Of course.

October baseball can be a free-for-all, and New York – finally healthy for the most part – is capable of doing that. But, the seedings of this matchup sum it up. Like an 8/9 NCAA Tournament first round game, Cleveland and New York as the fourth and fifth seeds in the AL bracket sum up the truth about both teams. There are factors with both teams that, through the 60-game sprint, create the idea that each manager doesn’t actually know what he’s going to get from certain players from night to night.

Make no mistake about it – both teams possess the weapons to win.

AL Cy Young lock Shane Bieber will open the series for the Indians, who have the top pitching staff in baseball with a 3.29 ERA. He’ll be opposed by Gerrit Cole, who finished in second for the Cy Young Award in 2019.

With Masahiro Tanaka and Deivi Garcia behind Cole, the Yankees can hang in with the Indians’ rotation arms in a shortened series. Both sides have one-two punches out of the bullpen, with James Karinchak and Brad Hand charging Cleveland and Zach Britton and Aroldis Chapman leading New York. 

Offensively, there are question marks with both teams. For the Yankees, many more of those have popped up on the road. New York has led the Majors in home games with 67 home runs and an .892 OPS. But, away from Yankee Stadium, the Yankees are totally opposite. New York is 29th in MLB in road games with 27 home runs and 24th with a .677 OPS. 

As for Cleveland, catcher Roberto Perez summed it up Monday afternoon when speaking with the media via zoom. 

“The pitching has carried us the whole year,” Perez said. “That’s why we’re here, because of them.” 

The good news for Cleveland? The Indians’ lineup rides momentum into the postseason, averaging 4.7 runs per game over their last 11 games, a 9-2 stretch for the Tribe. The bad news is the flaw that’s been present for this team this season. After the top five in the lineup, the back half of the order has struggled to find any level of consistency. 

That leads me to five questions on my mind that could determine this series: 

1. How do these bullpens execute beyond their power duos? 

The sixth and seventh innings, and how managers Aaron Boone and Sandy Alomar Jr. navigate through them, could determine this series. Ideally, both teams would like to be unscathed and get the game in the hands of the duos of Britton/Chapman and Karinchak/Hand to close out games. That said, either Britton or Karinchak could be used in a stopper role earlier in the game if that situation arose.

But, if either has a lead in the sixth or seventh inning, can the third and fourth options out of the pen get their jobs done? For the Yankees, Adam Ottavino is an option but he has a 5.89 ERA and his slider’s been questionable. Chad Green is another option, but he’s allowed a team-high five home runs out of the bullpen. Meanwhile for Cleveland, Nick Wittgren has eaten up 23.2 innings, second only to Karinchak’s 27.0 innings. That said, Wittgren has allowed four home runs and nine earned, with some ups and downs recently. Another option is left-handed Oliver Perez, who has allowed just four earned runs in 21 appearances.

There’s also Phil Maton, who has a 4.57 ERA in 23 games, but the wild cards out of the pen that could be turned to in high leverage situations are Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill.

We could see McKenzie as soon as Tuesday, while Quantrill started in two bullpen games this past week. For McKenzie, the 23-year-old rookie who started six games before being moved to the pen by circumstances with limited series, his stuff has not declined as a reliever at all. McKenzie has dealt four scoreless innings, allowing just one hit in two appearances out of the bullpen. Don’t be surprised if he serves as the bridge to Karinchak and Hand again this week. 

2. Will the real Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton please stand up? 

The Yankees hope their superstar right fielder puts together his best baseball of an injury-hampered season. He has only played in 28 games this season, being held out due to a Grade 1 right calf strain. Judge enters the Wild Card series struggling, hitting just .194 with a .594 OPS over his last 36 at-bats. Meanwhile, Stanton continues to be a disappointment for the Yankees. He has a chance to change that narrative this week, but has hit .200 with a .700 OPS over his last 35 at-bats. Nursing a left hamstring strain this season, Stanton joins Judge as arguably the top reason why New York has underperformed at 33-27, seven games behind the first-place Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees haven’t been healthy, and when they have, the results have been all over the place.

Of course, if either of them performs, it’s a game-changer for New York. Cleveland can’t match the offensive potential the Yankees’ line-up possesses, but that potential has not turned into results outside of the Bronx this season. 

3. Can Carlos Santana and Franmil Reyes perform to their capabilities? 

If the answer to this question is “yes,” I think the Indians could win the pennant. Cleveland certainly hopes that Sunday, when Santana delivered four RBI to stay hot and Reyes hit his first home run since Sep. 1, a momentum-changing bomb in the 8-6 comeback win over the Pirates, is a sign of what’s to come for the 4/5 duo in the Tribe’s lineup. Terry Francona has called Reyes “the connector” of the Indians line-up. When he’s on, that description has held to be true, but Reyes has been the epitome of a hot-and-cold hitter this season. In August, Reyes hit .313 with seven home runs and a .954 OPS. In September, he dropped dramatically to .244 with just two homers and a .691 OPS. The Indians could really use Reyes’ power. It could make all the difference particularly in low-scoring pitching duels like Tuesday could end up being. 

4. Can Jose Ramirez stay this hot? 

Ramirez is the primary reason why the Indians are in this spot, having the opportunity to host a playoff series and finishing in second place in the American League Central Division. The MVP candidate leads all MLB players in fWAR at 3.4. In September, he hit .366/.453/.841 with a 1.294 OPS with 10 home runs and 24 RBI. Courtesy of the Indians notes, Ramirez’s last 11 hits of the 2020 regular season were extra-base knocks. He is as hot as any player in baseball, and is more than capable of willing the Indians to victories. It doesn’t take much offense for the Tribe to win. This season, Cleveland is 29-6 when scoring three-or-more runs. Of course, the Indians would like their offense to put up 10 runs, but with a hitter like Ramirez, getting to three has come easier with the type of run he’s been on at the dish.

5. Who wins Monday’s ace-off? What about the lead-off hitters? 

Sure, it’s a double-question. But here’s how the two tie together. 

For Bieber, this will be the biggest start of his Major League career to date. For Cole, he said Monday how much he enjoys high stakes. This could be the type of pitching matchup that sees them negate each other’s performance, but that’s why the first inning only gets magnified. If you’re going to get anything off of either ace, one would think it happens early when they’re each trying to settle in.

The Yankees have the top hitter by batting average (.364) in the game in DJ LeMahieu. The Indians counter with Francisco Lindor, who has had a mixed bag of a 2020 season with a .258 batting average.

In Monday’s media availability, Lindor put it on himself to put together quality at-bats going forward. He’s obviously critical to Cleveland’s success, and has still had a solid campaign in most respects. That said, if Lindor plays to his superstar value, the Indians can hit a different gear with the level Ramirez has been on. The Tribe hinges on them. The Yankees need LeMahieu to keep at it with some of their question marks beyond him in their order. 

This is a series that could very well go three games, with the starting pitching both teams possess in the first two games. It’s a deeply compelling showdown between the only two teams in the American League that have finished over .500 in each of the last eight seasons. 

Game one is Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Bieber and Cole in primetime. Right where it belongs.

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