A year after losing a three-games-to-one lead to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, the Indians lost three straight to the Yankees — and, just like last season, the final defeat came at their own ballpark.
The Yankees now head to Houston, where they will begin the American League Championship Series on Friday against a familiar nemesis: the Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who helped eliminate them in the 2015 wild-card playoff.
The Yankees, though, are unlikely to be cowed after having rallied to knock off the Indians, who had roared their way to an American League-leading 102 victories and had lost only four times between Aug. 23 and the end of the regular season.
“Any time you’re down 2-0, and particularly the way it happened — it was a tough loss — it shows a lot about them,” Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, said as he stood outside the jubilant clubhouse. “They’ve been loose the entire time, just lighthearted the entire time, had their backs the entire time.”
The Yankees staved off elimination first with a 1-0 win in Game 3 on Sunday behind Masahiro Tanaka’s dominant performance and Greg Bird’s solo homer. Then they evened the series Monday night with a 7-3 victory in Game 4.
The Yankees got an auspicious start on Wednesday from Gregorius, who had an uneasy transition to the Bronx when he replaced Derek Jeter two years ago. He hit both home runs in the first three innings off the Indians ace Corey Kluber; Gregorius had entered Wednesday with two career hits (in 15 at-bats) off Kluber.
Gregorius speaks four languages fluently: Dutch, Spanish, Papiamento — the tongue of his native Curaçao — and English. But as home runs have flown off his bat and he settled into the middle of the Yankees’ lineup this season, his answer to whether he considered himself a home run hitter was easy to understand in any language: No.
“If I hit a home run, I hit a home run,” Gregorius said. “I’m not going out to try to hit home runs every time.”
If the regular season, when he hit 25 home runs — breaking Jeter’s record for a Yankees shortstop — was not enough to prompt a reconsideration, these playoffs have been. Gregorius also blasted a momentum-swinging home run against the Minnesota Twins in the Yankees’ 8-4 wild-card victory before adding two more on Wednesday night.
“I think back to a couple of years ago when we first got him and everybody in the stands every night was chanting Derek Jeter’s name,” Gardner said. “Nowadays you don’t hear that.”
Gregorius’s first home run, on a 1-2 fastball, stunned the capacity crowd at Progressive Field and put the Yankees ahead by 1-0 in the first inning. The second came in the third, on a 1-1 curveball, and pushed the Yankees’ advantage to 3-0.
“I was on base for the second one and it was a no-doubter, but I told him I went back to tag up because I figured there’s no way he could take him deep twice in the same game,” Gardner said.
That was all the offense the Yankees would need — and all they would get until the ninth. With his team clinging to a 3-2 lead, Gardner hit a two-out single to right field on the 12th pitch of his at-bat against closer Cody Allen. Aaron Hicks raced home from second and, when right fielder Jay Bruce’s throw bounced away from shortstop Francisco Lindor, an alert Todd Frazier dashed home.
That sealed a comeback that was made possible by the Yankees’ pitching staff, which yielded five runs over the final three games. And they mustered enough offense to overcome a grim series from Aaron Judge, who struck out four times on Wednesday and finished the series 1 for 20 with 16 strikeouts, shattering the record for a playoff series of 13 that had been held by four other players: Ryan Howard, Jackson, Brandon Moss and Javier Baez.
The Yankees’ scant offense stood up on Wednesday because of a calm start from C. C. Sabathia and a finishing kick from Robertson and Chapman, who covered the final two innings. Robertson, who threw a career-high 52 pitches in the wild-card game eight days earlier, had not looked the same since, surrendering the game-tying home run to Bruce in Game 2.
But Girardi called on him after the Indians strung together four consecutive one-out singles — from Jackson, Bruce, Roberto Perez and Giovanny Urshela— to narrow the Yankees’ lead to 3-2 in the fifth. It would turn out to be the game’s crucial moment.
With runners at first and second, Lindor — who had a woeful series other than his tide-turning grand slam in Game 2 — hit an 0-1 cutter back up the middle. Robertson reached for it but pulled his glove away at the last instant, which proved to be a wise decision.
“You see a ball coming back at you, your first response is to protect yourself, whether it’s hit hard or not,” Robertson said.
The ball bounced right to Gregorius, who was stationed almost directly behind second base. He stepped on the bag and threw to first for a double play that ended the threat.
It was another moment in this series where the margin of victory was pinstripe thin. If Judge were 6 feet tall instead of 6-foot-7, he might not have been able to leap at the wall to steal what looked to be a two-run homer from Lindor in the Yankees’ 1-0 win in Game 3. And the Yankees took the lead in Game 4 when Frazier’s line drive landed precisely on the line, opening a four-run inning.
But even being in this series felt unlikely when the Yankees arrived in Tampa for spring training. They hoped a night like Wednesday was possible — but few believed it would come this season.
The unloading of many of the Yankees veterans last year — like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann — created a great deal of enthusiasm around their raft of young talent. But it was also accompanied by plenty of questions. Two young players who emerged as stars this season, Judge and pitcher Luis Severino, did not solidify their roster spots until the week before opening day.
But the Yankees coalesced quickly. They posted the best exhibition record in baseball and carried that into the regular season, leaping to a 21-9 start through early May. The next several months carried with it some travails — injuries, Judge’s second-half funk and Chapman’s temporary demotion among them – but the Yankees chased the Boston Red Sox for the American League East title until the penultimate day of the season.
As it turned out, it was not a pyrrhic chase. The fight the Yankees showed seemed to help forge a resolve, one they counted on in recent days to cover the distance from devastation to elation.
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