CLEVELAND — Houston, you may have a problem.
Heading your way is one smoking-hot baseball team, the winner of three games in a row (to say nothing of the 40 American League pennants already in the trophy room, since that’s what’s going to be at stake across the next week and a half). You have had a hell of a season. You crushed the Red Sox in the ALDS.
But here come the Yankees. Here comes Aura and Mystique, and here comes youth and energy. Here they come after beating the heretofore unbeatable Indians 5-2 Wednesday night, taking the deciding fifth game of their own ALDS three games to two after spotting the Indians the first two.
Here comes Didi Gregorius, who has been the Yankees’ most indispensable player all year and who, on Wednesday, hit a pair of home runs that sucked the life out of an entire city, that crushed the heart of a proud baseball team that believed this was the year a 69-year run of championship futility finally would end.
Here comes Brett Gardner, a holdover from the last Yankees team to visit the Canyon of Heroes, who delivered three hits and two 12-pitch at-bats, precisely the symbol of this team that seems to enjoy the grit and the grind of the game every bit as much as the glory.
The Yankees couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the game. Corey Kluber seemed to have regained his Cy Young form after getting slapped around by the Yankees across 2 ²/₃ ugly innings in Game 2. But after Gardner and Aaron Judge were retired, and the amped-up crowd at Progressive Field went into an early tizzy.
Seconds later, it was as if someone had kicked the amplifier plugs out of the wall socket at a rock concert. Gregorius slammed a 1-and-2 fastball into the right-field seats, and the Yankees had a quick lead, and their dugout behind first base exploded in joy.
That feeling trebled two innings later. Again, it seemed Kluber had settled down, and again, after allowing a Gardner single, he had fanned Judge. But after getting ahead of Gregorius again 0-and-1, he left another fastball out over the plate, and Gregorius hit it to the same vicinity in right field, only 3 feet deeper.
It was 3-0. The Indians looked kneecapped. Two starts for Kluber, two early exits leaving his team three runs in arrears.
Meanwhile, CC Sabathia, who started his career here, who won a Cy Young award here, who once was a young fire-breathing fireballer here, turned back the clock for three innings and dazzled the Indians, going nine-up and nine-down across three spectacular innings, mixing his fastball and his curve and making the Indians look like the batter in those old Bugs Bunny cartoons.
But Girardi, who despite his Game 2 gaffe is just as comfortable managing in these big games as his team is playing in them, was at the ready the moment Sabathia showed signs of faltering. That was in the fifth when, after retiring the leadoff man, he surrendered four straight singles.
That allowed the Indians to crawl back within 3-2, with runners on first and second and the top of the Cleveland order coming up. It’s funny; Girardi has been known to annoy his starting pitchers because during the regular season he has absolutely no compunction about removing them an out or two shy of a win if he thinks it’s the right move.
Sabathia understood. He handed the ball to Girardi (which we now know will certainly not be his final time as a Yankee), Girardi handed it to David Robertson, and Robertson did exactly what Girardi was hoping he would do: he induced Francisco Lindor to hit into a devastating 6-3 double play, killing the rally, preserving the lead and muffling a crowd that was close to hyperventilating.
Robertson did a masterful job for 2 ²/₃ innings and then Girardi, not fooling around even a little bit, went right to Chapman for the eighth inning and Chapman delivered an easy 1-2-3 inning.
And when the Yankees tacked on two insurance runs in the top of the ninth, the building was so quiet you could almost hear the engine warming up on the tarmac at Hopkins International, ready to whisk the Yankees to Houston and the ALCS. Here they come, Houston. Here they come.
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