Conventional wisdom said that if the Yankees couldn’t hit Trevor Bauer in Game 1 of the ALDS, it stood to reason that Cleveland ace Corey Kluber was going to be next-to-impossible to beat in Game 2. Naturally, the Yankees proceeded to pound Kluber to the tune of six runs in 2 2/3 innings, and jumped out to what looked like a commanding 8-3 lead after five innings.
CC Sabathia is light years removed from the guy who dialed into the mid-90s in his heyday, but last night’s version was plenty effective, mixing four pitches and relying primarily on a slider to baffle his opponents, particularly after the first two frames. If the story of the starting pitchers had been the story of the game, the Yankees would be headed back to the Bronx with the series tied at one game apiece. But everything unraveled for New York starting in the sixth.
What looked like an easy win for the Yanks in the early going turned into a heartbreaking, 13-inning loss. Now the Yankees head back to the Stadium with their backs to the wall, hoping that Masahiro Tanaka can save their season on Sunday night and that Luis Severino has more on Monday night than he did in his Wild Card game outing against the Twins. If there's a silver lining for the Yankees, it's the fact that at the very least they showed they could hold their own against the probable AL Cy Young award winner, even if he wasn’t at his best.
Since everyone else will be beating Joe Girardi’s managerial decisions to death, here are some more overlooked highlights from Game 1:
- The young version of Sabathia who could rely almost solely on velocity was fun to watch, but this iteration of CC isn’t so bad either when he’s on his game. Sabathia added a cutter to his repertoire in 2016 and now throws a slider, cutter, and sinking fastball almost equally. He uses his size to his advantage, moving both his arm and his body at an angle that maximizes deception and makes the ball difficult to pick up coming out of his hand. In retrospect, one wonders if Sabathia should have thrown more than 77 pitches.
- On the other side of the ball, it was clear as early as the first inning that Kluber was not bringing his A-game against a powerful Yankees lineup. Thirty-one out of the 76 pitches Kluber threw were balls, but Kluber’s issue was less with control and more with poor command within the zone.
- Much was made of Girardi’s questionable pitching decisions, but a case could be made that Terry Francona nearly lost Game 2 for Cleveland by leaving his ace in too long. By the time Kluber got to Hicks, it was obvious that the presumptive Cy Young favorite was running on fumes. The sequence against Hicks is shown above. Even with the break Kluber got on a called strike one, he still fell behind and couldn’t pump a flat 86 mph slider past Hicks. By the time Tyler Olson arrived to save Kluber’s bacon, it seemed like it was too little, too late.
- Seven pitchers succeeded Kluber in relief for Cleveland and six of them did not allow a run. Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are the superstars of this bullpen, but it was Bryan Shaw who kept the game close enough for Francisco Lindor’s grand slam to matter, and Joe Smith who spelled Miller in the ninth and got two big outs against Aaron Judge and Sanchez. In the 2016 playoffs, it's likely that Miller would have stayed in the game, in part because his splits are better against righties than lefties but primarily because Miller was Francona’s guy. Whether it's because he has a deeper pen or because he trusts his secondary relievers more, Francona has been willing and able to rely on nearly everyone in his pen as the situation warrants. It's easy to look back and say that Francona made the correct calls because Cleveland won, but his likely thinking at the time was if he pushed Miller to 30-35 pitches and Cleveland lost, they would have headed to New York with the series tied and his best reliever gassed.
- The Yankees had the best bullpen DRA in the majors in 2017 at 3.49, miles ahead of the second-best team, the Rays at 3.97. Cleveland’s bullpen was good, but “only” sixth overall, with a 4.07 relief DRA. Despite this, the perception coming into this series was that the Yankees had a question mark with Dellin Betances, or at least with whether Girardi would have the confidence to use him in a big spot. The extra-inning affair left Girardi with little choice, but the lack of big innings for Betances down the stretch combined with a pitch count closing in on 30 was too much for him to handle. If Aroldis Chapman had entered the game in the eighth instead of the ninth, perhaps the game ends in the ninth and Jay Bruce doesn’t homer. But without the benefit of hindsight it's difficult to question trying to ride the hot hand in David Robertson in a must-win contest.
- The Year of the Home Run continued apace, with five homers added to the 2017 barrage. Including the regular season, the Yankees and Cleveland have combined for 22 home runs in nine matchups.
- Despite the Yankees' collective failure against Bauer, most of Girardi’s lineup from Game 1 remained intact. Jacoby Ellsbury was the only new addition, slotting into the eight hole and replacing Chase Headley, while Todd Frazier and Hicks swapped between the seventh and ninth slots. While New York’s offense was solid in 2017, this isn’t going to go down in history as one of the dominant Bronx Bombers lineups. Six of the nine hitters in their lineup had TAvs between .266 and .272.
- Cleveland came into this series with a game plan against Judge, and thus far it has worked. Most of the offerings were out of the zone, and except for a mistake pitch late in the game by Cody Allen, he wasn’t given an opportunity to drive anything. Judge did draw three walks, but the decision has been made by Cleveland’s brass to let Sanchez or someone else in the lineup beat them.
- There were the usual complaints about the strike zone, which weren’t helped by the hit by pitch that should have been called a foul ball when it hit the knob of Lonnie Chisenhall’s bat. Umpire Dan Iassogna seemingly made his zone much wider in extras; below is an artist’s rendition:
- In a series featuring two teams with young and exciting players, Francisco Lindor stands head and shoulders above the rest. A grand slam in a key situation will do that, but it wasn’t just the big hit but the way Lindor reacted that makes him one of baseball’s most marketable stars. It was Lindor’s only hit of the night and he is only batting .143 in the first two games of the series, but the grand slam and his million-dollar smile is what everyone will remember.
- For a team with a strong defensive reputation, Cleveland made a few uncharacteristic mistakes on Friday. Jose Ramirez bobbled an easy play in the shift early in the game and defensive replacement Erik Gonzalez air mailed a ball into the stands in the later innings. Bruce made a play in right field where he cut off inexperienced center fielder Jason Kipnis, and while the two did not come close to colliding Kipnis seemed oblivious to Bruce’s presence. The most memorable play in the field, however, was a great one. Yan Gomes made a strong throw to pickoff pinch-runner Ronald Torreyes. Gomes’ throw was on the money, but it was Lindor’s fast tag and excellent positioning at second that helped make the play happen.
- The Yankees' mistakes weren’t merely limited to Girardi’s misuse or lack of use of replay and bullpen management. Todd Frazier made a pair of errors at third base and was also caught stealing in the second inning when Judge was at the plate. Torreyes’ pickoff killed the Yankees' best opportunity for a run in extras.
- Ten years ago this past Thursday was the “bug game,” when midges descended onto Jacobs Field from Lake Erie and practically chased Joba Chamberlain off the mound, forcing that game into extras and giving Cleveland a win that turned that ALDS around. This year’s ALDS Game 2 will perhaps go down in history as the “knob” game, but regardless of what it is called it will not soon be forgotten.