By Jason Keidel
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Another playoff game morphed into a turbulent night of Home Run Derby and a relay race of relievers.
The Yankees were up 2-0, down 3-2, up 8-3, and then tied 8-8 on Friday night during Game 2 of the AL Division Series. Then the scoring stopped as the game inched on into night, past nine, 10, 11, and 12 innings. But then in the 13th, Austin Jackson reached first, stole second, and then scrambled home on a bullet down the left field line by Yan Gomes before a delirious Cleveland crowd.
The last time the Yankees gagged a five-run lead in the playoffs was 15 years ago — Game 3 of the 2002 ALDS against the Angels. The longest playoff game the Bombers ever played was a 15-inning affair in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS vs Seattle. (Cleveland tied its record on Friday night.) No matter the numbers, this games was agonizing, as it not only cost the Yankees a chance to return to the Bronx with the series tied, it also all but killed their chances to advance to the next round.
When Terry Francona kept his ace on the bench for Game 1, we wondered what he was thinking. The Indians’ skipper must have known something, as Corey Kluber was awful Friday night, failing to pitch into the fourth inning.
Everyone from Ron Darling to Nate Silver tells us that the best way to win the World Series is strong pitching and great gloves up the middle. Yet in this bizarre, binary season of the strikeout/home run, the Yankees turned Kluber into a game of pepper, pounding the ball off and over walls, with the carousel of runners stomping on home plate six times after three innings.
The top three pitchers in the AL playoffs, Kluber, Chris Sale, and Luis Severino, have combined for eight innings and 18.00 ERA. Teams that had 1-0 lead in a playoff series, with a former Cy Young winner starting Game 2, had won 14 of the last 16 such series. (Someone forgot to give CC Sabathia the memo, which we’ll get to soon.)
Oddly enough, Aaron Judge was not part of the home run festivities, following up his awful Game 1 (0-for-4, four Ks), with another muted performance (0-for-3, three walks). But Gary Sanchez joined the party. While Judge has bogarted the bold ink with his epic homers, Sanchez has hit a few himself, finishing fourth in MLB with an average of 416 feet. As did Aaron Hicks, who blasted a three-run bomb to put the Bombers up 6-3. Finally, Greg Bird swatted a high-arcing shot (137 feet high) that seemed to join the stars before slipping inside the right-field foul pole, to stretch the lead to 8-3.
Lost in the faerie dust of this epic game will be the performance of the Yankees’ starting pitcher.
How about Sabathia? In this year of rebuild or reload, the waves of fledgelings and fresh faces, the Yanks were once again buoyed by a sage southpaw. While his hitters were mashing their way to that big lead, Sabathia was retiring 11 batters in a row. Maybe Girardi was a little quick with the hook, as Chad Green, who had been unstoppable all season, replaced Sabathia and then gave up a grand slam to Francisco Lindor.
Managers in New York City are vilified for everything, from pinch runners to bad breath. But in this case, perhaps Girardi should have given Sabathia, who had a spectacular record following Yankees losses (9-0 with a 1.71 ERA), one more inning. Especially considering he’d just retired 12 of the last 13 batters.
So the Yanks again relied on David Robertson, who has been a godsend. But after his longest career outing by far in the wild-card game (3 1/3 innings), he just didn’t have the stamina to pitch another two innings. After retiring four on three strikeouts, Robertson surrendered a solo shot to Jay Bruce, which tied the game at 8.
It’s no secret I’ve been banging the Sabathia drum all season. The hulking, veteran southpaw has been a quiet pitching pillar all season. But since he no longer short-circuits the radar gun, he’s no longer considered an ace — at least not commensurate to his salary — and has been overlooked. No one will care now that another eight innings were played after he departed, but at least this cap will be tipped to the hefty lefty.
In the NBA, they say a series doesn’t begin until a road team wins a game. Seems the same is true in baseball. You hope the Yankees save face with a win on Sunday, and punctuate a fine season. No matter how this series ends, the team and town have nothing to be ashamed of. Though Friday’s game ended up a loss, it typified the kind of guts and gifts that have pundits drooling over the club’s future.
The Yankees simply lost to a better baseball club. And perhaps they win this game, and this series, next year.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel