Old enough to know better, young enough not to care. Ousting the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians was both parts redemption and validation for these New York Yankees.
Throw out the first game and the designated hitter slot and essentially every Yankee position player and pitcher contributed in some way or fashion. They proved to be a resilient bunch, one capable of performing with their backs up against the wall.
From an 0-2 series hole to their first ALCS since 2012, this Yankees squad is full of fight and fun to watch.
After major positive vibes in their AL Wild-Card game victory against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium, Game 1 of the ALDS at Cleveland was a different animal. Blame it on a lack of hitting, loss of focus on the mound, inconsistent umpiring or whatever you like but the end result was a 4-0 Indians victory.
SONNY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS
Granted he didn’t receive anything in the way of run support but Sonny Gray was tough to watch. He’s still young enough but one hopes he’s not another guy with tantalizing stuff, who can’t quite pull it all together. In his 3.1 frames of yielding four walks, three hits and three runs, including a two-run homer to Jay Bruce in the fourth inning, Gray appeared to be too fine with his pitches and lacked a consistent rhythm on the mound. He needed to be much more aggressive in his approach and pace.
Another element which likely caused Gray to press was the impressive showing by Trevor Bauer. Bauer held the Yankees without a hit for 5.1 innings until an Aaron Hicks double off the wall in left in the sixth. In 6.2 scoreless frames, Bauer fanned eight. While Bauer also benefited from a fairly liberal strike zone, the bottom line is you have to try to adapt and scratch something out at some point.
Given how the back end of the New York relief corps had to “bullpen” the club to a Wild-Card victory, the next wave of Yankees relievers had to carry the load and keep the game within striking distance again.
Adam Warren helped quash further trouble in the fourth. Although a couple of wild pitches by Warren and Jaime Garcia in the fifth enabled the Tribe to set up a sac fly for a fourth run.
When it’s late November and you’re reflecting back on the 2017 season, maybe you’ll look back and think about what a great big picture stepping stone it was. Yet, when the Yankees were ahead 8-3 in the sixth inning and ousted likely AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in his own building, I’m guessing your reaction wasn’t, “I’m just happy to be here.” The 13-inning, 9-8 defeat was gut-wrenching, head-scratching and downright brutal.
BUILDING A LEAD
OK, let’s start with the positive. Compared to the first game, the Bronx Bomber lineup managed a much more selective approach against Kluber. During a 38-pitch first, after Aaron Judge coaxed a walk, Sanchez smashed a two-run bomb to dead center and the Yankees were off and running.
Despite some defensive miscues (I’m looking at you, Todd Frazier), the offense bounced back to re-take the lead in the third. With one down, Sanchez singled to right and advanced on a Didi Gregorius groundout. Ensuing batter Starlin Castro, who registered his second multi-hit game of the series, singled home Sanchez with a hit to center. A single to right by Bird set up first and second for Hicks.
Doing his best Bernie Baseball impression, Hicks smoked a 2-2 offering from Kluber into the right-field bleachers, making it 6-3 and chasing Kluber in the process. Yankees hitters made Kluber throw 76 pitches and he couldn’t make it out of the third inning.
For all of the analytics and sabermetrics in baseball, there’s still something to be said for the old eye test and having a feel for your team and trust in your players. That might be an even more damning indictment of manager Joe Girardi following a debacle of a sixth inning.
Even after some defensive lapses, CC Sabathia took charge on the mound and even successfully fielded a bunt in the second inning. The veteran lefty looked comfortable in his old stomping grounds. At one point Sabathia retired 11 straight Indians batters and 12 of his final 13. Yet, with 77 pitches in the sixth, one down and a five-run lead, Girardi decided to pull Sabathia. Maybe Girardi has more of a feel for Sabathia than you or I do but he’s been pitching for you since 2009, helped you win a title, was rolling along on a decent pitch count and you don’t trust him to at least wait until another run scores?
The big man deserved a better fate and almost had a similar line as Andy Pettitte did during Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS at Cleveland.
With one on and one out, Girardi summoned Chad Green, who played the role of Joba Chamberlain in this epic tragedy. After getting Austin Jackson to fly out to right, a Yan Gomes double made it second and third for Cleveland. Pinch-hitter Lonnie Chisenhall was awarded first base on a hit by pitch, which replay showed hit the knob of the bat and fouled back into the mitt of Sanchez for what would’ve been strike three.
In his post-game press conference, Girardi mentioned the replay team didn’t have access to the slo-mo replay before the 30 second challenge time was up. The Yankees skipper also said he didn’t want to break Green’s rhythm, despite taking those 30 seconds or so to make a decision. Of course, Girardi could’ve trusted his catcher Sanchez, who made his case for a foul tip to the home plate umpire and his own bench. Yes, it was a botched call by the umpire but at this point in the game, there would’ve been no harm in challenging the call. Plus, Girardi would later challenge a play where a photog touched the ball from the first base camera well and had no problem breaking Chapman’s rhythm.
Hence, instead of being out of the inning, the bases were loaded and Francisco Lindor crushed a grand slam to right, effectively breaking Green’s rhythm, pulling the Indians within a run.
Girardi eventually took responsibility but the damage was done.
If Girardi allows Sabathia to finish out the sixth, who knows what the complexion of this game takes on? Is Green lights out with a clean seventh? Does David Robertson, who retired four straight batters before allowing a game-tying home run to Bruce in the eighth, not hit a wall and only work one inning? Could Robertson have pitched the seventh, leaving Chapman to preserve a two-inning save instead of merely extending the game with another solid outing? Would it have prevented them from having to exhaust Dellin Betances, who was on the mark once again until getting his pitch count up in the 13th?
Plus, while it’s tough to fault the offense when the score eight runs, maybe a Matt Holliday at-bat or Chase Headley start would’ve been helpful at designated hitter. Leaving two runners on in the tenth and having pinch-runner Ronald Torreyes picked off of second base in the eleventh, didn’t help matters either.
Bottom line, there were way too many moves which had to go wrong to botch a five-run lead in the sixth, where your offense puts up eight runs on the whole and yet, here we are.
It took long enough but the postseason finally had a pitcher’s duel with Carlos Carrasco and Masahiro Tanaka. From the Yankees perspective, great pitching, defense and timely power hitting kept their season alive with a 1-0 victory.
PITCHING AND DEFENSE
Tanaka was rested, focused and amped up. His ledger included seven scoreless innings with seven K’s, three hits and one walk. One could argue Tanaka could’ve been marched back out for the eighth but with his propensity to yield home runs this season it turned out to be the correct move to go to the bullpen after 92 pitches.
There were a couple of notable huge swings which snuffed out potential trouble. Following a one-out triple to right by Kipnis, which evaded Judge, Tanaka picked up his teammate. In addition, Sanchez was clutch knocking down the ball and keeping it in front of him with a runner on third. Tanaka proceeded to whiff the next two Indians and ended the threat.
In the sixth, Judge would return the favor. With one on and one out a ball lifted to right by Lindor was robbed by Judge. No homer for Lindor and no souvenir for a certain troll in the stands.
After Roberston recorded an out and yielded a walk in the eighth, Chapman was brought on to record a five-out save. Chapman whiffed two and escaped the eighth. During the ninth, Chapman worked out of a two-out jam with two on, retiring Santana on a fly out to center for the save.
The Yankees 7-3 victory felt like every part of a series clincher except for the clinch. In yet another proving ground, some Baby Bombers passed with flying colors. It was a night which saw the pinstripes respond and take advantage of Cleveland miscues.
The best part about the Yankees bouncing back and extending this series is the redemption of Luis Severino. I guess the Minnesota Twins of all teams “have his number.” From boos of disgust in the Wild-Card game to sounds of jubilation against the Indians, Severino reclaimed his title of young ace.
Severino whiffed nine Indians across seven frames, ramping up his velocity and getting stronger as the game went on. The only blips were a two-run homer to center by Carlos Santana in the fourth and a solo shot to right by Roberto Perez in the fifth. Perhaps most importantly Severino extinguished the Cleveland bats from bouncing back after the Yankees scored in the second, fifth and sixth.
To hear it from the FS1 announcers, you’d think given their logic the Indians should’ve won 3-0 because the Yankees totaled six unearned runs and recorded their seventh on a “cheap” Yankee Stadium home run. In reality, the pinstripes probably could’ve poured it on more, especially in the third inning. In the end, they made the most of Cleveland’s mistakes.
Facing Bauer for the second time in the series, New York made sure to run up his pitch count and ride him out of town.
With one down, Castro reached on a Giovanny Urshela error when he lined a ball off of his leg at third. He would also advance to second on a passed ball by Perez. Coming through with a clutch frozen rope was Frazier, drilling a RBI-double to left. Hicks followed with a RBI-single to center. The ensuing batter Gardner singled to center, setting up runners at the corners.
Facing Mike Clevenger in the third, the Yankees loaded the bases and scored on a two-out throwing error by Urshela, who pumped toward second but then threw high to first, enabling Gardner to beat out the throw and score the fifth New York run.
In the fifth, Frazier was able to reach second by virtue of a throwing error by pitcher Danny Salazar. After a Hicks groundout moved Frazier to third, he took advantage of Kipnis’ second baseman throwing arm in center-field, tagging and scoring on a ball hit by Gardner.
Coming through in the clutch following a short-lived and erratic outing by Betances, Kahnle continued his postseason brilliance with a flawless two-inning save. Kahnle fanned five, becoming the first pitcher ever to register five K’s and a save in an elimination game.
When a series comes down to a decisive winner take all affair, it’s generally a toss up. The Yankees 5-2 clinching victory had an early release, pressure in the middle and a euphoric ending. Redemption and validation were all parts achieved in advancing to the ALCS.
When Sir Didi is on, so are the Yankees. Joining postseason heights reached by Derek Jeter and Bucky Dent, Gregorius was 4-for-8 in the final three games of the series with two home runs. All Yankee victories.
As he did in the Wild-Card clincher, the Yankees shortstop got them on the board in the first and drove in three on the evening.
Facing Kluber in the first, Gregorius rocked a 1-2 offering into the right-field seats for a 1-0 edge.
Gregorius was also clutch in the field, turning a rally-killing 6-3 double play in the fifth off the bat of Lindor, helping Robertson escape the frame with only two pitches.
CRAFTY CARSTEN CHARLES
As in Game 2, Sabathia was in his element at his old stomping grounds. The big lefty ground the Tribe offense to a halt with an assortment of breaking pitches. The Indians didn’t record a hit until the fourth and Sabathia tied a career playoff high by fanning nine batters. Sabathia left it all out there, including a divot following a diving snag on a bunt attempt by Perez in the third.
It wasn’t until the fifth when Cleveland hitters stayed back and began to time him with four consecutive singles. The RBI singles by Perez and Urshela closed the gap to 3-2. After being criticized for yanking him too early, one can understand why Girardi was hesitant to pull CC after the first run but as it turned out he made the switch to Robertson in more than enough time for an inning-ending double play.
GRINDING THE GEARS
After impeccable relief by Robertson and a flawless eighth by Chapman, the offense looked to provide some breathing room in the ninth against Cody Allen. With one out, Hicks singled to left and advanced to second after a boot by Austin Jackson in left. Fraizer was able to work an impressive two-out, nine-pitch walk to keep the inning moving.
The ensuing batter Gardner, who like Gregorius, stepped up his game in the three victories, going 6-for-13 with two-RBI and a pair of runs scored, worked a 12-pitch at-bat and came out victorious. Gardner singled to center, scoring Hicks and a throwing error by Bruce, coupled with a nice slide by Frazier, increased the New York lead to 5-2.
Chapman looked every bit the part of the big contract closer the Yankees anticipated he would be. As much as the broadcast continued to show the 2016 World Series highlights of Rajai Davis going yard, he was nowhere near the yard on this night.
Chapman was breathing fire and confidence and appeared unfazed by the long wait between innings in the dugout. Aside from a lead-off walk to Ramirez, the fireballing lefty was able to whiff Encarnacion, induce a fielder’s choice groundout to second on a nice pique by Castro and catch Jackson looking for the two-inning save and the final out of the series.