CLEVELAND — Corey Kluber registered two quick outs to open a decisive Game 5, the second yet another Aaron Judge strikeout, and that turned the volume of a mostly red-wearing, throaty crowd all the louder.
Kluber, who is probably going to win the AL Cy Young, then got ahead of Didi Gregorius 1-2 and the decibel level on a Wednesday night at Progressive Field somehow spiked higher.
It was another moment in which if the Yankees had rolled over and played dead you would understand. They already had done so much to get this Division Series back to Cleveland against the defending league champion and owners of the AL’s best record.
The act of forcing a Game 5 feeling like Rocky going the distance in the original movie, then losing a decision, but winning long-wanted respect.
But the 2017 Yankees did not return to the Midwest for moral victories. They came for a victory.
“We are a team that is never going to give up,” Gregorius said.
It turns out roll over and play dead is simply not in their DNA. Gregorius turned around a 94-mph Kluber fastball, launched it into the right-field seats, hit the mute button on the 37,802, threw a punch that said the Yankees were here to win this game, improbably come all the way back in this best-of-five, move on to Houston and the ALCS to play for the right to go to the World Series.
“The competitive side of this team has never been in question,” general manager Brian Cashman said.
It shouldn’t be. Gregorius would homer again off Kluber, a two-run shot. CC Sabathia would carry the front end of a pitching relay that would be followed by 5 ²/₃ shutout innings of relief by David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman. And Brett Gardner would wage a couple of epic at-bats, including a 12-pitch beaut in the ninth inning that would lead to two more runs.
Put it all together and the Yankees won 5-2, won this series three-games-to-two.
It further stamped this season as a tremendous success regardless of what comes next.
But, of course, these Yankees haven’t given into what was expected of them or limitations yet, and coming back from an 0-2 hole against the Indians would accentuate that they are going to be a tough out.
The Yankees left Cleveland last Friday with all but a toe-tag on the 2017 season. They had lost both games, the second in such miserable fashion that it was difficult to envision how they could rally.
You will remember that they roughed up Kluber in that game, as well. Built an 8-3 lead. And then Joe Girardi did not challenge what would have been a foul-tip strike three that would have ended the sixth inning. That set into motion a stunning Indian rally and a few days of anguish for Girardi.
“Obviously, Game 2 was a tough loss to swallow,” Gardner said. “We had it under control and it slipped away from us. We knew it would be a tough challenge, but we had confidence in what we could do.”
What they did is win two in The Bronx, improve to 3-0 in elimination games this postseason. But No. 4 — to move to the ALCS — was in Cleveland, against Kluber. In front of that throaty crowd.
Back at the scene of his crime, Girardi started Sabathia over Sonny Gray. Turned to Robertson when Sabathia faltered. Continued to use Gregorius in the No. 3 hole. All of that worked.
“The difference between Friday and today is about as big as you can get,” Girardi said.
Sabathia, his slider brilliant, struck out nine of the first 14 batters he faced and was pitching a one-hit shutout with one down in the fifth. But the Indians strung together four straight singles for two runs and Girardi summoned Robertson, who in his own way was as valuable as Gregorius.
Robertson induced a Francisco Lindor double play — Gregorius making a terrific play on it, what else? That set the righty reliever toward 2 ²/₃ no-hit, scoreless innings to get the ball directly to Chapman for a two-inning save, the closer striking out Austin Jackson to finalize the improbable comeback.
“They,” Cashman said of his Yankees, “have a lot of heart.”
His Yankees were not expected to make the playoffs in March, but did. They had the pressure of having to beat the Twins in the wild-card game. They did. They were underdogs to an Indians team that late in the season set the modern MLB record for consecutive wins with 22 and then Cleveland went up 2-0 in this series, inflicting a devastating loss last Friday.
At that point, it would have been fine to begin to plot the course toward pitchers and catchers in Tampa next February.
But the Yankees recovered in The Bronx, then came back to Cleveland to make another stand. They shockingly move to the ALCS, by turning off the noise for good at Progressive Field in 2017.
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