Depending on perspective, fans will view the Yankees’ trip to the American League Championship Series (ALCS) as yet another sign the apocalypse is near or as yet another example of the sheer unpredictability of baseball. Pegged for an early postseason exit by all but their most ardent followers following a monumental blunder by manager Joe Girardi in Game Two of the AL Division Series (ALDS), they instead proved their mettle by claiming both home outings and then standing up to pressure on the road to clinch yesterday’s winner-take-all affair.
The Yankees should have been goners. After all, they faced the vaunted Indians, who entered the postseason as the hottest team in Major League Baseball (MLB), and who had three chances to forge what was expected to be a clear path to the World Series. And they weren’t playing well to boot. Yet, for some reason, they came together; the fact that they were being written off fresh from a debilitating loss galvanized them. And, no doubt, they were buoyed by the sellout crowds at The House That The Boss Built. Masahiro Tanaka, who had an up-and-down campaign, was unhittable in Game Three, enabling a single home run by teammate Greg Bird to be the decisive score. Luis Severino, who lasted only one out in the wild-card contest last week, provided seven solid innings in Game Four. And, through it all, Girardi found confidence. “We’ve got a shot now,” he said. “It’s a totally different feeling than it was the other day, and these guys have picked me up.”
Did they ever. When Game Five rolled around, the Yankees didn’t stroll into Progressive Field as if they had nothing to lose. Rather, they had heads held high and absolutely believed they deserved to win. And they hit the ground running, giving CC Sabathia some breathing room with first- and third-inning bombs courtesy of Didi Gregorius off Indians ace Corey Kluber. And the pitcher with the most wins in the park took advantage, coming up with a season-high nine strikeouts in four and a third innings. Meanwhile, the Indians became unsure of themselves. They carried a 102-60 slate that featured an unprecedented 22 straight victories, and yet looked overmatched in the crunch. They entered the postseason tops in fielding, but somehow committed dispiriting lapses with outcomes on the line; yesterday, they had two ninth-inning errors that all but sank their cause.
Moving forward, the Yankees continue to have their work cut out for them. They face the favored Astros, against whom they lost five of seven regular-season meetings, in the ALCS, and they hope Aaron Judge, their single biggest offensive force, will have already recovered from his slump. In the ALDS, he stank at the plate so much so that he became the first player in MLB history to have three four-strikeout games in any given series. If nothing else, though, they’ll be ready. Notwithstanding their status as underdogs, their progress so far gives them unshakable self-assurance; not for nothing have all their triumphs come in elimination set-tos. No wonder Girardi was ecstatic yesterday. His job was probably saved; his job looks like a good one to have again.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Basic Energy Corp.