So that’s how the American League’s best season—the best 2017 record-wise; the best individual 2017 (for a pitcher); the best collective 2017 (for a pitching staff)—ends. Just like that. After a 5-2 Yankees win in Cleveland Wednesday night, the Indians’ redemption year is over, and New York is headed to Houston and the ALCS.
It’s not fair to call any loss in a best-of-five a choke… the series are just too brief, too random. But this one will sting for a while in Cleveland. Not just because of all the regular-season laurels the Indians earned but because of how strong Cleveland looked five nights ago. A few quick thoughts on what happened:
The scorecard will show that the winning run was scored back in the third inning. This is technically true. But recent playoff history tells us that Aroldis Chapman protecting a lead in Cleveland is no sure thing, and when Chapman spent a long top of the ninth in the Yankee dugout, with a one-run lead to protect in the bottom of the frame… well… who would have bet against a comeback?
But then came Brett Gardner’s magical at-bat. With runners on first and second, with two outs, Gardner engaged in a 12-pitch battle with Cleveland closer Cody Allen. He fouled off five straight 3-2 pitches—four fastballs and a curve. Pitch number 12 Gardner ripped to right through the infield shift. Aaron Hicks scored from second, and owing to more of the same uncharacteristic defensive sloppiness that Cleveland displayed on Monday night, Todd Frazier scored from first. The lead went from one to three runs, and Chapman had extra room to breathe.
HE DIDIT ONCE AND THEN HE DIDIT AGAIN
Raise your hand if you had the majority of the Yankees’ offensive output in a Game 5 coming from two Didi Gregorius homers against Corey Kluber in the first three innings. And keep your hand raised if you had New York winning.
Gregorius entered Wednesday night’s game with two hits in 13 career at-bats against Kluber. While he spent the better part of this season in the meat of the lineup and did hit 25 homers, the vast majority of those came against truly woeful pitchers. (There were two off Rick Porcello, two off Yovani Gallardo… you get the drift.) That’s to say nothing of the juiced ball making homer statistics hard to judge by the usual benchmarks.
But, credit where it’s due, Gregorius put a proper spanking on Kluber tonight. The first-inning homer came on a 1-2 fastball in, the third-inning two-run shot on an 0-1 hanging breaker. With Aaron Judge looking lost at the plate, and Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird all boom-or-bust, Gregorius vaulted this team into the league championship series. He immediately becomes the Yankee shortstop with the greatest track record of playoff achievement. Er, wait. I’ll have to check on that.
WHERE DID CLEVELAND’S BATS GO?
The Yankees have a fine group of pitchers; indeed, in the AL in 2017, only the Indians’ staff allowed fewer runs. But one of the enduring puzzles of this series will be the matter of Cleveland’s hitters, save Jay Bruce, all going cold at once. Francisco Lindor hit .111. Jose Ramirez hit .100. Carlos Santana hit .211. Jason Kipnis hit .182. Edwin Encarnacion didn’t get a hit in the two-plus games he played. Michael Brantley went 1-for-11. The Indians had holes in the bottom of their lineup, but this isn’t that—this is a chasm as wide as the top of the order.
Was it the fatigue of a long season? (Probably not: Cleveland had been through an even longer season in ’16.) Was it a scouting failure by the Indians? A scouting triumph by the Yankees? Or was the Yankees’ pitching just that good? (The ALCS matchup against Houston’s relentless bats will be a fun test on that front.)
There’s likely no answer more sophisticated and precise than, well, cold snaps happen. But the Indians would in any case be well-served in the offseason by adding a bat in addition to retaining pending free agents Bruce and Santana.
STRIKEOUTS AND SETUP MEN
Whether you adore or despise the brand of baseball played in the postseason, you must acknowledge it’s something other than what we get from April to September, even in our three-true-outcomes era. We get a lot of strikeouts, and a lot of relievers. And this series stretched that style as far as I can remember.
First, the strikeouts. Fittingly, Game 5 set a record for strikeouts in a nine-inning postseason game, with 31 (of 54 total outs recorded) between the clubs. That follows a Game 4 in which 25 of 51 total outs were recorded by strikeout, and a Game 3 in which 22 of 51 were. That’s insane. During the regular season, about 31 percent of all outs came via the strikeout. Over the last three games of this series, half were.
Second, the relievers. All season long, Cleveland’s pitchers threw 66 percent of the team’s innings; the Yankees’ starters threw 63 percent. In this series, Cleveland’s starters threw 43 percent of the team’s innings (20 of 47), and New York’s starters threw just over half of the team’s frames (23 and two thirds out of 47).
In Game 5, Corey Kluber—who, even if he didn’t look anything like it this series, will likely win the AL Cy Young award—lasted three-and-two-thirds innings, 67 pitches. Andrew Miller relieved him. CC Sabathia, who won a Cy Young a decade ago while twirling his last full season as an Indian and looked just that good in the early going tonight, lasted just four-and-a-third despite nine strikeouts and a perfect first pass through the order. He threw 69 pitches. David Robertson relieved him.
The managers made the right decisions; I’m not quibbling with them. I’m noting only that postseason baseball is an entirely different flavor of the game. To wit: Miller threw 39 pitches; he hadn’t done that all season. Robertson went two-and-two thirds innings; he did that only once. Aroldis Chapman was called on for a six-out save; the only time the Yankees got six outs from him this season was in an extra-inning game. Perhaps we’re best off treating the regular season and postseason as distinct competitions and weighting them more equally in our minds… but that’s a discussion for another day.
For now, the Yankees have games left in 2018, and the Indians don’t. Game 1 is Friday night.