Hal Steinbrenner is looking for a fresh start after being bummed about his club finishing second to the Rays in the AL East.
“Given the caliber of this team I am disappointed, as they are, that we didn’t win the division. Losing 15 of 20 in a season this short made that a very difficult task,’’ Steinbrenner told The Post via email Monday. “Having said that, at this point it is a new beginning. If we play up to our potential we can defeat any team in baseball. I truly believe that and I know the players do as well.’’
That faith will be tested Tuesday night, when the Yankees and Indians play Game 1 of the best-of-three AL Wild Card Series at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Game 2 and Game 3, if required, will also be at the Indians’ ballpark because they are the fourth seed, one notch ahead of the Yankees who went 22-9 at home and 11-18 outside of The Bronx.
Game 1 will be a matchup of elite right-handers Gerrit Cole and Shane Bieber, the heavy favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award after an 8-1 season with an MLB-best 1.63 ERA in a dozen starts.
And the exact reason Steinbrenner spent $324 million across nine years to make Cole a Yankee.
“I believe Cole will give us the type of strong performance that we envisioned last year when we signed him. One of the many in the years to come,’’ Steinbrenner predicted. “Will be a tough series but I believe we will prevail.’’
A clearer path for advancing to the best-of-five ALDS would be winning Game 1. If that isn’t enough pressure on Cole, his hitters have to figure out Bieber, who led the majors with 122 strikeouts in 77 ¹/₃ innings.
“He has been locked in from the beginning [of the 60-game season]. We all love good pitching matchups,’’ said Cole, who went 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA in a dozen starts. “I am excited and it should be a good one.’’
While Bieber, 25, will be facing a stronger lineup than the 30-year-old Cole, who pointed out the challenge of the first four batters in the Indians’ lineup being switch hitters, the Yankees have been inconsistent at the plate. In losing six of their final eight games, the Yankees scored a dozen runs in the losses and 23 in the two victories.
“A couple of guys you got to be careful with. There is obviously some real good talent and some good bat to ball with [DJ) LeMahieu,’’ Bieber said of the Yankees’ second baseman, who topped the majors with a .364 batting average. “There is some obvious power in that lineup.’’
That is likely a reference to Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Luke Voit, who led the majors in homers with 22.
However, Judge and Stanton haven’t found the power switch since coming back from the injured list. In his last 10 games, Judge hit .194 (7-for-36) without a homer, two RBIs and a .548 OPS. In nine games, Stanton batted .200 (7-for-35) with a homer, four RBIs and posted a .700 OPS.
While pointing out the hurdles of the 2020 COVID-affected season, Cole understands what a high-end No. 1 starter is expected to do in a short postseason series.
“The object is if you are taking the ball early is to set the tone for the pitching staff and for the team,’’ Cole said. “I have been practicing that this year so I will just try to get better at it.’’
Cole vs. Bieber might be the best pitching matchup of the entire postseason, and the one who performs better could put his team nine innings away from advancing.
Which, in the Yankees’ case, would erase a bit of Steinbrenner’s disappointment over not winning the AL East.