- Momentum in baseball? Just ask the Yankees and Indians about it. After being left for dead in a crushing Game 2 loss, New York has rebounced for two stunning wins at home. After a spectacular comeback win in Game 3, all Cleveland needed to do was win once at Yankee Stadium. Just like that, we're going to Game 5.
NEW YORK—Well, now we’ve really got ourselves a Division Series. They come into plenty of criticism among baseball purists, who are miffed, rightly, that over time the league has put more and more obstacles between the winningest regular-season teams and the World Series. Say this, though, for best-of-fives: They don’t cheat you, drama-wise. After at most three games (sometimes two games, as in three of the four division series this year,) every remaining contest becomes a must-win.
The Yankees, once down 2-0, have had their backs up against the wall since late Friday night. After Monday night’s 7-3 victory in the Bronx to force a decisive Game 5, they’ve shoved Cleveland’s there too.
These series, so short, so volatile, conclusively make a fiction of momentum. For how could the Yankees have been thought to possess the slightest bit of good juju after their primetime nightmare in Cleveland last week? On Thursday night, in Game 1, the Bronx Bombers were shut out, collecting just three hits, pushing only one runner past second. Friday, New York chased Corey Kluber in the third inning, eventually passing an 8-3 lead to its superlative bullpen with 12 outs to go. Six outs later, the bullpen had choked it away, and in the 13th inning Yan Gomes drove home Austin Jackson to end things, not just the game but the Yankees’ season, it seemed. New York had squandered a shellacking of the likely Cy Young winner. What hope did they have?
Since the series shifted east, though, the Yankees have narrowly bested Cleveland—that is, in all the areas in which the Indians haven’t been outright humiliated. Game 3 was as even a pitchers’ duel as you’ll ever see; if in the late innings Jay Bruce homers off Aroldis Chapman, instead of Greg Bird off Andrew Miller, the ALCS would be set by now.
But Game 4 was a thrashing. New York took a 4-0 lead in the second, stringing together two-out hits against Trevor Bauer, and never looked back. The first, a Todd Frazier double, spun off the outer half of the left-field foul line like a Roger Federer slice, scoring Starlin Castro, who had reached on an error. Aaron Hicks singled home Castro, and after a Brett Gardner single and stolen base, Aaron Judge pulled an up-and-in 99 mile-per-hour fastball to send them both home and Bauer to the showers.
Maybe no one was beating Luis Severino tonight. He allowed three runs in seven innings, walking one, whiffing nine. (The only disappointment: two of the four hits he allowed were home runs.) He’s a two-pitch pitcher, yes, but when his fastball and slider are as sharp as they were tonight, a third pitch would simply be overkill.
Manager Joe Girardi said pregame that Severino’s fiasco of a wild-card game start was the result of a 23-year-old pitcher “possibly getting too amped up.” In proving Girardi right Severino also bailed him out. His seven-inning start meant that the Yankees could avoid a gassed Chapman and stick to only the hottest hands in relief. (A subplot worth following: hot-and-cold Yankee reliever Dellin Betances, who looked so good in his first two innings in Game 2, couldn’t find the strike zone at all in a two-batter, zero-out appearance in the eighth.)
But let’s give the Indians some credit, too—they could have lost to any pitcher the Yankees threw Monday night. They sabotaged themselves with wretched fielding. The defense has been a sore spot all season, with a team defensive efficiency that ranked 11th in the AL. Monday night’s problem was errors, though, not range. In 2017, Cleveland committed the second-fewest errors of any team in baseball. That didn’t count for much: Slick-fielding Giovanny Urshela—in the lineup for no reason other than his glove—made two at third in the first three innings, saddling Bauer and reliever Mike Clevinger with five unearned runs between them. (“Very unlike him,” said manager Terry Francona after the game.) Only once all year did the Indians allow as many as four.
In the fifth, pitcher Danny Salazar threw away a comebacker, putting Todd Frazier at second with no one out. He came around to score on a shallow fly ball to second baseman-turned-centerfielder Jason Kipnis, giving New York a crucial insurance run and Cleveland a sixth unearned one. Two innings later, with New York already up by four, Carlos Santana added another two-base error. (The Yankee Stadium D.J. had already played “Give It Away” by Red Hot Chili Peppers; this time he went with “Human” by the Human League. A fifth error, had it come, might have exhausted his supply of novelty songs.)
What happened to this team tonight? “The whole night, we made it hard for ourselves to win,” Francona said. “We kept trying. But we kept shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The Indians hadn’t lost consecutive games since August 22 and 23; they’re now a game away from elimination. Yankee fans wanted Joe Girardi fired all weekend; today, he’s the savior who has brought the team back from the brink. These series don’t cheat fans, emotionally speaking; they definitely don’t cheat the teams involved in them.
Girardi was asked about this psychic whipsawing at the postgame press conference. He choked back tears while replying: “[Game 2] was as difficult a loss as I’ve had as a manager. I had some difficult losses as a player. But it’s really difficult. And it’s difficult because I care so much. And it’s not just—it’s not caring about myself. It’s caring about everyone else that is involved and that is wrapped up in Yankee baseball. … I really care. And, you know, we’ve gotten it back to 2-2, and we got a shot now.” Indeed they do, just like that.