The Yankees were a better team than the playoff seeding gave them credit for. Placing them in the wild-card game with the ramshackle Twins belied the fact that despite finishing two games behind the Red Sox, New York’s run differential was 81 runs better. It didn’t account for the bullpen’s ability to strangle the life out of a game—21 years after the Yankees won a title thanks in part to Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland’s ability to shorten playoff games to six innings, David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman took the baton from CC Sabathia after just 4.1.
Over five games, the difference between a 91-win team and a 102-win team just isn’t that big. It’s not shocking that the Yankees would take three of five—or even three in a row—from Cleveland. But after the way this series started, it’s hard to fathom.
After Friday’s games, it looked like both ALDS favorites would win in a sweep. Even Cleveland’s Game 3 loss was encouraging—Carlos Carrasco was lights-out, and it took a stupendous performance from Masahiro Tanaka and a left-on-left home run against Andrew Miller for the Evil Empire to just stay alive until Monday. But then Trevor Bauer, after looking like 2010 Tim Lincecum in Game 1, got smoked in Game 4, and Corey Kluber, who looked better than he did in Game 2, still allowed two homers in as many at-bats to Didi Gregorius in Game 5, and that was it.
The Yankees needed standout performances in this series and got them—from Gregorius, Robertson, Tanaka, and Brett Gardner, who plated two insurance runs in the top of the ninth and pushed the score to its final 5-2 margin by working a 12-pitch at-bat off a rapidly tiring Cody Allen. They were good enough to win despite Aaron Judge going 1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts in the series.
But there’s still a measure of shock that’s appropriate when a team that won 102 regular-season games, then won two more to start the playoffs, can’t take that last step over the finish line.
Figuring out how is easy. Francisco Lindor hit .111/.273/.278. José Ramírez hit .100/.182/.100. Kluber, perhaps the most important player of last year’s postseason run, gave up nine earned runs in 6.1 innings over two starts—two of his three worst of the season. Cleveland’s best three players gave them nothing, and even on a team this good, that turned out to be too much slack for the rest of the club to pick up. Where last year Terry Francona mixed and matched and platooned to perfection, this year there was no clutch Brandon Guyer HBP, no Rajai Davis home run. There was Giovanny Urshela, who’s the kind of hitter who implores you to talk about his defense, not only sucking up one of Cleveland’s last six outs but looking like Brooks Conrad in the field.
But why it happened … that’s a different question, one the Indians now have three more weeks to ponder than they would have liked.