CLEVELAND -- The last time the Indians encountered the Yankees, Cleveland was just starting to shift into a higher gear. The Tribe headed to Yankee Stadium at the end of August, swept the three-game series in the Bronx and continued on winning for the next two weeks straight.
The Indians' 22-game winning streak -- an American League record -- across August and September propelled the club up the standings and helped them secure the AL's top postseason seed. That brings us to Tuesday night, when the Tribe's players earned the right to sit back, relax and watch the Yankees defeat the Twins in the AL Wild Card Game. New York will now face Cleveland in the AL Division Series presented by Doosan, beginning with Game 1 on Thursday at Progressive Field.
"They're a good team," Indians reliever Joe Smith said. "Obviously, they're an all-around good team. But, if you make your pitches, you can get them out just like anybody else in the league."
And, when the cameras are not fixed on Yanks rookie sensation Aaron Judge, pitching will certainly dominate the storylines for this intriguing ALDS.
On Cleveland's side, manager Terry Francona boasts baseball's best rotation, which is led by AL Cy Young Award favorite Corey Kluber, and an elite bullpen anchored by relief ace Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen. While the Tribe's relief corps paced the Majors in ERA (2.89), Yankees manager Joe Girardi's bullpen ranked first in the Majors in WAR (9.2, per Fangraphs), strikeouts per nine innings (10.9), strikeout percentage (29.1) and opponents' average (.201).
Against New York, chasing the starter early is not as advantageous as it might be with other teams.
"They're probably about as good as it gets," said Miller, who spent time alongside Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances in the Yanks' bullpen before being traded to Cleveland last season. "It's certainly a strength of their team, and Joe's going to have the luxury of picking and choosing who he goes to."
The Indians are planning on sending Trevor Bauer to the mound for Game 1 on Thursday, followed by Kluber in Game 2 on Friday and Carlos Carrasco in Game 3 on Sunday in New York. If Cleveland has a mid-game lead, expect Francona to once again lean hard on his bullpen, as he did during the team's run to the World Series a year ago. Beyond Miller and Allen, the Indians will have multi-inning options in Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger.
Bauer went 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in his two outings against the Yankees this season. One matchup to watch will be Bauer against Brett Gardner, who has hit .300 with an .862 OPS off the pitcher in 26 career plate appearances.
This season, the Yanks ranked second in the AL in runs scored (858) and home runs (241) with Judge -- an AL MVP Award candidate and the favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award -- leading the charge with 52 homers, plus one in Tuesday's AL Wild Card Game win. In seven games against the Indians this season, though, Cleveland outscored New York, 31-20, and went 5-2 overall.
The Indians' pitching staff set single-season MLB records in strikeouts (1,614) and strikeout rate (10.1 per nine innings). The Yankees' lineup, meanwhile, struck out at a 21.8-percent clip and had the sixth-most punchouts (1,386) as an offense in the AL.
"The Yankees, you have the danger factor," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "They might strike out a little bit more, but there's guys from top to bottom that can hit the ball out of the park, and do some special things that way. The key against them is not to allow three baserunners. Make sure you don't walk guys, and limit the damage. If they're going to hit one, which they are, make sure it's a solo."
One key to success this year for Cleveland's pitchers was a heightened level of breaking balls thrown.
Per Statcast™, the Indians ranked first in the Majors with 17.6 percent of their pitches being curveballs (knuckle-curves included), and that rate climbed to 19.2 percent from June 1 through the end of the season. Bauer, Kluber and Carrasco eached ranked within the top seven pitchers in curve percentage after June 1, among players with at least 2,000 pitches. The Yanks hit .222 with a .356 slugging percentage against curves, putting them right in line with the MLB averages of .218 and .355, respectively.
"Pitching rules in the playoffs," Indians outfielder Jay Bruce said. "My dad and I used to argue about it. He would say good pitching would beat good hitting. I would always be like, 'No, no, no,' but I think the point has been proven. Good pitching usually prevails. Obviously what [the Yankees] have done over there is impressive, but we have our own group of guys over here that I'd put up against them."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.