- Trailing 8-3 to the Yankees in Friday's ALDS Game 2, the Indians' confidence never wavered, and at this point... why should it?
CLEVELAND — After 405 pitches, 308 minutes, 17 runs, 14 pitchers and five errors, not including one enormous one of omission, Cleveland Indians closer Cody Allen found just two words that perfectly captured not just a singular night of madness, but an entire year in which a city and a ballclub occupy an almost surreal state of enthrallment.
That would do well as a working title of the tome if the Indians happen to win nine more postseason games. That journey, as the Indians know too well from last year, is long and treacherous. But let Allen explain what for now is the rapture that is happening within the bonds of this team, and by extension, its fans. It’s what happens when you’re down 8-3 to the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Division Series and your ace pitcher has been rocked for six runs and your top run producer is in the hospital getting his right ankle x-rayed after wrenching it on a base.
“Even at 8-3,” Allen said, “we felt like, just get within striking distance and we’ll find a way to win. It’s true belief, not the fake stuff you hear guys talk about all the time.”
Anything is possible. At this rate the Indians will be riding through downtown Cleveland on unicorns in their World Series parade.
Nobody had ever won 22 uninterrupted games until these Indians did it. Nobody had ever finished the season on a 33-4 run until these Indians did it, unless you count the 1889 Cincinnati Outlaw Reds of the one-and-done ragtag Union Association. And no Cleveland team had ever come from five runs down to win a postseason game until these Indians did it.
“I’ll tell you what, man, momentum is a big thing, especially in these kind of ballgames,” said Yan Gomes, the catcher who squatted for 210 pitches from eight pitchers over five hours, eight minutes before having the reserve and brass to drive in the winning run. “Whenever you’re up at the plate feeling good about it, good things are going to happen.”
Great teams are one thing, and the Indians, with the best strikeout pitching staff of all time and the most successful postseason manager this side of Joe McCarthy, are a great team. But a great team playing with momentum is another thing altogether. It is unstoppable, even in the moments, such as down 8-3 entering the sixth inning, when they appear eminently stopped.
No matter how the rest of October plays out, this game occupies a space in the Masterpiece Theatre collection of great postseason drama. It owes his place in posterity to an amazing distinction: in an age in which the replay challenge system was designed to end the infamy of blown calls deciding huge games, this game will be remembered for a blown call that helped decide the game.
The Yankees held that strange gossamer of an 8-3 lead when Chad Green faced Lonnie Chisenhall with two outs and two runners on in the sixth. It was clear that Green was not quite his usual, overpowering self. He had thrown 20 pitches without getting a single swing and miss. At 0-and-2 he threw a high and tight fastball to Chisenhall, right where Chisenhall’s right, or bottom, hand wrapped around the knob of the bat. The ball deflected into the glove of catcher Gary Sanchez. Did it hit the hand or the knob?
Sanchez immediately motioned and yelled that it hit the bat.
Chisenhall did nothing to show that a 96 mph pitch had struck him anywhere on the hand. He held his place in the box.
Dan Iassogna, the home plate umpire, quickly signaled that the ball hit Chisenhall’s hand and awarded him first base.
The first replays showed the veracity of the call to be in question, though not an outright blunder. Surely Yankees manager Joe Girardi would challenge the call, given a) his catcher’s protest, b) the uncertainty of what took place, c) the availability of two challenges to him in this playoff game, and d) what was at stake. If the call stood, the Indians would have the bases loaded and Francisco Lindor, their leadoff hitter, at bat. If the call were overturned, Chisenhall would be out, the inning would be over, and the Yankees would need only to get nine outs before Cleveland scored five runs to bring the series to New York tied at one game.
But then something very odd happened. Girardi, after letting Iassogna know he was considering a challenge, waived his right to a challenge as the 30-second window to lodge one was about to expire. It was unimaginable, especially for a team that led the majors in successful replay challenges (75 percent overturns). How could he let even the opportunity pass?
Girardi explained after the game that he did not see a super slow-motion replay until after the expiration of the 30-second window. As unfortunate as that may be—and through no one’s fault; producers must sift through a dozen or more camera angles searching for the best look—Girardi had nothing to lose and everything to gain by challenging based on any kind of replay. So why not challenge?
“And probably being a catcher,” he said, “my thought is I never want to break a pitcher’s rhythm. That’s how I think about it. So if it’s not something—there was nothing that said he was not hit.”
Break a pitcher’s rhythm? This from a team whose catcher wears out the grass between home plate and the mound with his frequent coffee klatches with his pitchers? No, that couldn’t be it. But then Girardi, pressed again, doubled down.
“I guess I could have,” he said. “Again, being the catcher I am, I think about rhythm for the pitcher and not taking him out of his rhythm.”
The questions circled back to the play again, and again Girardi went to his rhythm defense.
“I guess I … in hindsight, yes, I could, but as I said earlier, being a catcher, I think about rhythm and never want to take a pitcher out of rhythm and have them stand over there two minutes to tell me that he wasn’t hit,” he said.
Girardi would invoke the rhythm defense for a fourth time.
It was clear by now that Green was off his game. With Lindor due up, Girardi could have gone to David Robertson. Instead, he stuck with Green. Did he think about replacing Green with Robertson?
“No, because he’s had success off of Lindor,” Girardi said. “I did not think of lifting him. His last hitter was going to be Lindor, obviously, but he’s pitched really well against Lindor.”
This is the entire history of pitching “really well” to somebody: four plate appearances. Two walks in 2016 and two strikeouts this year. That’s it.
At 1-and-0, Green, who owns the hardest fastball to hit in the majors (.109), thought it was a good idea to throw Lindor a slider. He hung it. Lindor smashed it high off the foul pole in rightfield. Progressive Field erupted, like a cauldron of happiness that just kept boiling over itself.
After this, if you’ve been hanging with the Indians for one month or all season, there was only one place where this game to go: The Land of True Belief.
First there was the matter of how the Indians were going to tie the game. Robertson was pitching to Jay Bruce leading off the eighth inning when Bruce, after several great takes of curveballs, worked the count to 3-and-1. Robertson has thrown 20 pitches on 3-and-1 counts this year. Nineteen of those 20 pitches have been cut fastballs. None of those 20 pitches had yielded a hit.
But these are the Indians, and Bruce may be their greatest talisman. Since he arrived in a trade from the Mets, Cleveland is 44-9, a ridiculous .830 wining percentage. Bruce smashed Robertson’s pitch into the leftfield seats for an opposite-field home run. Crazy eights: 8-8 in the eighth.
There it stayed until Girardi sent an efficient Dellin Betances out for his third inning, a fine idea until Betances walked leadoff batter Austin Jackson in the 13th. Adam Warren was ready for Girardi in the bullpen, but the manager trusted Betances, with his power curveball and upper-90s fastball, to bully his way out of it. Betances never had obtained more than seven outs in a game in his major league life.
There was a more serious problem with Betances: he is notoriously poor at defending stolen bases. Cleveland manager Terry Francona wasn’t about to bunt – not with weak-hitting Erik Gonzalez after Gomes. So the stolen base was in order.
“We knew going into the inning that was probably our best way to go about it,” Francona said. “We certainly weren’t knocking Betances all over the ballpark, but he has given up some stolen bases.”
Betances has allowed an 86 percent success rate on 69 stolen base attempts in 468 career opportunities. Warren has allowed just a 63 percent success rate on just 27 attempts in 627 opportunities.
“If you get an opportunity, go!” first base coach Sandy Alomar told Jackson.
Betances quickened up his delivery on the first pitch, resulting in a ball to Gomes.
“Once you fall behind, then you’re going to concentrate more on throwing a strike,” Alomar said, “than you are on quickening up.”
Betances, who is not comfortable throwing to bases, came set for his next pitch, stepped back off the rubber and instead of throwing to first, faked a throw there.
“Once he did that, I knew I was going,” Jackson said.
At that moment he remembered the words of Rajai Davis, who hit that epic home run off Aroldis Chapman in World Series Game 7 last year: If you’re going to go, just go. Be fearless! You can’t be afraid of being thrown out.
“So as soon as I saw his [left] foot come off the ground, I was gone,” Jackson said.
He stole second. It was hardly a risky play—not with an 86 percent chance of success, not with Betances needing to throw a strike (though he didn’t) and not when Betances gave him only a phantom throw his way.
What followed next was the remainder of an epic 10-pitch at-bat by Gomes that stands as a proxy for the fight in these Indians. Betances has the least confidence in his fastball of any pitcher who can throw 100 miles an hour. Command is the issue. Most unusual as it is, Betances has more confidence that he can command his breaking ball than he can his fastball. Nine of the 10 pitches in the at-bat would be breaking balls.
The eighth pitch, in the dirt, pushed the count full. The full count is the true measure of the pitcher. In Japan, full counts are badges of honor, because they are seen as playing out the batter-pitcher confrontation to its full flower. At 3-and-2, the pitcher reveals what he thinks of his stuff. He needs to throw a strike, so he needs a pitch that can retire the batter within the confines of the strike zone. It is a revelatory pitch, an audit of a pitcher’s nerves.
Here is what that audit looks like of Betances: on full counts to righthanded hitters he boosts his curveball use from 51 percent to 75 percent.
Gomes, like any well-thinking catcher, knew what was coming. Betances threw a curve – a bad one that hung inside. Gomes, who would later joke that pitch might have hit him if he didn’t swing, pulled it foul.
Another pitch. Another curve – this one over the heart of the plate. Gomes ripped this one just inside the third-base line, skittering all the way to the corner and sending home Jackson, whose winning run was made possible by the easy stolen base.
“That last at-bat by Yan Gomes was one of the best at-bats I’ve ever seen,” Allen said.
Allen stood at his locker. It was about 30 minutes after Gomes’ memorable at-bat. He had already showered and dressed, but his blue shirt clung to the perspiration on him. “I’m still sweating,” he said, “and I’ve showered.”
He could only imagine what was happening on the streets around Progressive Field. The bedlam, the happiness, even the giddiness of what is going on in this proud town. The roars that rose up during the game, especially when Lindor clanked one of the foul pole, when Bruce went yard and when Gomes walked ‘em off, were unlike anything from last year, when legions of Cubs fans bought their way into the ballpark to see a title with generational meaning.
Nights like this are why we love October, when small decisions yield big consequences, when the difference between winning and losing, between fame and infamy, between a hit-by-pitch and a third strike, is so narrow as to be barely visible with the naked eye. We remember what could have happened as much as we do what actually did happen. It was the kind of night that makes true believers of us all.