What if you had missed the first half of Wednesday’s Game 5 between Cleveland and New York and somehow heard that one team’s starter was absolutely dealing, starting the game with three perfect innings and striking out nine over the first four a third, and that his shortstop was providing all the offense necessary with home runs in his first two at bats.
Be honest now. Wouldn’t your shoulders have sagged? Wouldn’t your heart have sunk? Wouldn’t you have assumed Cleveland was the team, Corey Kluber was the pitcher, and Francisco Lindor was the shortstop?
But everything was upside down on Wednesday night as the Yankees clinched their first trip to the American League Championship Series in five years in the most unlikely fashion. Their 5-2 win would’ve been thrilling had it been a Monday night game in August against the White Sox, but coming as it did in the deciding game of a five-game series the Yankees had once trailed two games to none against arguably the best team in baseball, this game will resonate for a while.
The narrative most expected included a dominant start from Kluber, the odds on favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award. After a disastrous start in Game 2 in which he yielded seven hits, two homers, and six runs in just 2.2 innings, surely he would bounce back and regress to the mean. In the larger sample size of the regular season, Kluber had posted ridiculous numbers — 265 strikeouts in 203.2 innings, an ERA of 2.25 and a microscopic WHIP of 0.87. Surely we would see that Corey Kluber in Game 5, right?
It didn’t take long for the Yankees to test him. After Brett Gardner was retired attempting a drag bunt on the first pitch of the game and Aaron Judge struck out (more on that later), Didi Gregorius strode to the plate with two outs. After getting head 1-2 with pitches painting the outside edge of the strike zone, Kluber allowed a fastball to float closer to the center of the plate, and Didi pounced. He dropped his head before dropping his bat, and he broke into his home run trot before the ball had reached its apex.
It was just a solo homer, and it was just 1-0, and it was just the first inning, but it could’ve been the biggest swing of the game for the Yankees. It planted seeds of doubt in a Cleveland crowd that had arrived with plans of celebration, it energized a Yankee bench that had arrived with luggage packed for Houston, and it gave all involved the first hint that maybe Kluber wasn’t returning to form.
After Gary Sánchez struck out to end the inning, CC Sabathia walked out of the Yankee dugout and returned to a mound that he knew well. It’s been an interesting season for CC, and I’ll admit that even as closely as I’ve followed this team in 2017, Sabathia has somehow confounded me. There seems to be no comparison between Sabathia, an aging veteran held together with braces and bandages, and Kluber, a dominant young ace in the prime of his career. On the surface, this game, the same as Game 2, seemed to be a mismatch in Cleveland’s favor but for one surprising statistic. Cleveland had won 20 games started by Kluber in the regular season; the Yankees had won 19 of Sabathia’s games — and they should have won Game 2.
And so the Big Man took the mound with the weight of Yankee Universe on his shoulders, and all he did was retire the first nine Cleveland hitters in order, striking out six of them. It was an absolute clinic, and a tribute to the complete transformation Sabathia has embraced. Cleveland fans likely thought back to the days when he was wearing their jersey and mowing down hitters with blazing fastballs, but on this night those first six strikeouts came on four sliders (80-81 MPH) and two cutters (90-91), a pitch that the younger Sabathia never threw.
The Yankee hitters, meanwhile, were still working. Gardner led off the top of the third with a single to right, and two batters later Didi came to the plate with one out and one on. He fouled off the first pitch, then sent the second pitch on a long arc into the Cleveland night, another ball that was gone the moment it left the bat. Really, what can be said about Sir Didi at this point? I don’t think he’ll ever get beyond the fact that he was The One Who Replaced Derek Jeter, but the truth of the matter is that he’s become a great player in his own right. His career won’t end in the Hall of Fame, but if there hadn’t been a Derek Jeter, I think he’d be in the conversation of the best Yankee shortstops of all time. (You probably just spit out your coffee, but think about it for a while. You’ll see that I’m right.)
Kluber would survive the third, but when he walked Jacoby Ellsbury with two outs in the fourth, Cleveland manager Tito Francona pulled him from the game. The best pitcher in baseball hadn’t been good enough when his team needed him the most, but baseball is like that sometimes.
Meanwhile Sabathia, only the third-best pitcher on a team whose starters were thought to be its glaring weakness, was still going strong. He finally allowed his first baserunner of the game when Francisco Lindor singled to start the fourth, but he recovered quickly, striking out Jason Kipnis on three sliders (79, 78, and 80 MPH), using one pitch to get José Ramírez on a grounder, and then striking Edwin Encarnación to end the frame. (Side note: One of the best things about this series is that we never had to watch Encarnación walk his parrot.)
The game changed a bit in the bottom of the fifth. After Sabathia struck out Carlos Santana for his ninth (ninth!) strikeout of the game, Cleveland put together a rally that would eventually push Sabathia from the game. Four consecutive singles, an assortment of ground balls and soft line drives from Austin Jackson, Jay Bruce, Roberto Pérez, and Giovanny Urshela brought Cleveland to within a run at 3-2 and forced Joe Girardi to pull his starter. Having pitched just four and a third innings, Sabathia wouldn’t qualify for the win, but it had still been one of the best starts of his season in the season’s biggest game.
David Robertson came in to face Cleveland’s best hitter, Franciso Lindor, with runners on first and second and only one out, and surely every Yankee fan watching was flashing back painfully to Lindor’s grand slam in Game 2. Suddenly the game — and the season — was in the balance. But it was Robertson’s time. It’s been great having the Alabama Hammer back in the bullpen, and he needed just two pitches to put an end to the Cleveland threat. He got Lindor to hit a hard grounder up the middle to short, and Didi turned a nifty double play to end the inning and preserve the lead.
Robertson needed just seven pitches to get through the sixth inning, which allowed him to come back out for the seventh, eliminating any need to see less dependable relievers like Chad Green or Delin Betances. He struck out Santana and Jackson, seemed to want no part of Bruce, whose game-tying homer in Game 2 had come at Robertson’s expense, but then got Pérez on a comebacker. Mission accomplished.
With six outs to go, Girardi sent Aroldis Chapman out to get them. The eighth inning went smoothly enough, with the usual assortment of 100 MPH fastballs (four of them) and strikeouts (two), but the lead was still slim, and the ninth inning loomed.
But the game slipped away from Cleveland in the ninth, and much of it was their own doing. Aaron Hicks blooped what should’ve been a harmless single to left with one out, but Austin Jackson had been playing rather deep and had to rush in to hold the speedy Hicks at first. Jackson misplayed the ball, allowing Hicks to coast into second, carrying an all-important insurance run in his back pocket.
Chase Headley popped up for the second out, but then Todd Frazier fouled off six pitches on his way to a nine-pitch walk from Cody Allen, bringing Brett Gardner to the plate. One of the few holdovers from the Yankees’ last championship and a player who always seems to be at the center of trade rumors, Gardner has quietly become the heart of the team. If there were ever any doubts about that, they were erased with this at bat. After falling behind 1-2 to Allen, Gardner started battling. And battling. And battling. He worked the count full after six pitches, and then he just decided not to give in. Allen kept throwing strikes, but none were to Gardner’s liking, so he just slapped them into the stands to keep the at bat going. After five straight foul balls, Gardner dug in for the twelfth pitch of the at bat. Perhaps feeling the toll of the twenty pitches he had thrown to Frazier and Gardner, Allen finally made a mistake, leaving a fastball up and on the inner half of the plate. Gardy lashed it into right field for a clean, line drive single to plate Hicks and make the score 4-2, Yankees. Bruce fielded the ball in right field, but his throw was too casual and ended up short-hopping Lindor, who wasn’t able to corral it. The ball didn’t bounce far away, but Frazier alertly took advantage and sprinted towards the plate, sliding home just beneath the tag from Pérez.
With the score now 5-2 and Chapman heading back out for the ninth inning, thoughts naturally turned towards the ALCS, but three outs remained.
To be honest, I had forgotten what it was like. I had forgotten the tension connected those final three outs. I watched the ninth inning on my feet, standing in front of the television, sometimes pacing, sometimes crouching, sometimes hopping with nervousness. When I look back now, it was all relatively uneventful, especially given the three-run lead, but at the time? Not so much.
Chapman had been sitting on the bench for almost thirty minutes, so he naturally came out and walked the first batter of the inning, just to make things more interesting. Encarnación and his parrot were due next, but Chapman dispatched him without much drama. He threw five fastballs, but Encarnación swung only once. The last pitch was 101 MPH down the middle; Encarnación watched it go by, then returned to the bench to make plans for the off-season.
Santana was due next, and I had a momentary heart attack when he rapped a ball out towards second and Starlin Castro got caught between hops. He thought for a moment about charging, then realized he had to retreat, and there was a second when it looked like the ball might skip past him, when it looked like Cleveland would have runners at first and third with one out… But Castro stabbed the ball out of the air and flipped the ball to Didi for the force out.
One out away.
With Austin Jackson coming up to the plate, I pleaded to Chapman through the television: “Just! Throw! Fastballs!” He obliged. The first was a ball, but the next two were strikes, bringing us finally to the game’s final pitch. Chapman pumped a 101-MPH heater across the top of the zone and Jackson watched it pass for strike three, probably because he knew he had no hope of hitting it. Chapman struck his pose and screamed into the night, and the Yankees were headed to Houston and the American League Championship Series.
After the game the analysis centered on Kluber’s failure and CC’s success, on Didi’s big game and Judge’s abysmal series (save those two big moments), but this series was really about Joe Girardi. I will freely admit to being completely furious with him following the gaffe in Game 2, but what angered me the most on Friday night was that he made excuses after the game. He blamed the system, he complained about not having enough information.
None of that was valid, of course, and it fueled anger throughout the Yankee Universe as fans gathered pitchforks and made plans to storm the castle.
But on Saturday we saw the truth. Girardi admitted his mistake during his off-day press conference, but there was even more following the Game 3 win on Sunday night. He accepted responsibility for the earlier loss and fought back tears as he admitted to the pain he felt following Game 2. He knew he had let down millions of people, and I knew he wasn’t just talking to the reporters gathered in the room, he was talking to me.
So as I celebrated in my living room on Wednesday night, I wasn’t just rejoicing in a victory over the best team in baseball, and I wasn’t just dreaming of the World Series. I was celebrating for Joe.