Yankees complete stunning comeback over Indians to reach ALCS

Yankees’ Didi Gregorius points to the dugout after hitting his second home run of Game 5. (AP)
Yankees’ Didi Gregorius points to the dugout after hitting his second home run of Game 5. (AP)

CLEVELAND – The New York Yankees won a baseball game Wednesday night, and from second place in the American League East, from the thin ice of a wild-card game, from a two-game deficit in the division series and their own manager’s tears, they will play for their first World Series appearance in eight years.

In Game 5 of the AL Division Series, they rode two home runs from Didi Gregorius, a workable start from CC Sabathia, and 14 outs from their bullpen. They beat the 102-win Cleveland Indians, 5-2, at Progressive Field, and then headed to Houston, where on Friday they’ll begin the best-of-seven ALCS against the 101-win Astros.

They left behind the Indians, a franchise that spent five days a single win from advancing. In what is becoming a habit, that win did not come.

The Indians led in the last World Series, three games to one. They did not win again.

They led in this division series, two games to none. They did not win again.

In between, they did win 102 games and a division title, making it all a little less heavy, and then only more mysterious. More heartbreaking. This was the year, you see, that was to be theirs. They’d leave that undone.

Indians right-hander Corey Kluber, the 18-game winner and presumptive Cy Young Award favorite, carried into Game 5 the weight of a season and postseason that wasn’t supposed to get this harrowing. Not yet. He’d been unusually imprecise in Game 2 of the division series, a game the Indians won in 13 innings. While Kluber was resetting his mechanics for whenever his next start would come, the Indians were losing two games in New York, and the series was returning to Cleveland, and so on a cool and windy Wednesday night he’d have to beat the Yankees. Or, in a town that not a year ago had come within a handful of pitches of its first World Series championship since 1948, that had turned that disappointment into joy over its 102-win 2017 Indians, it would be basketball season. Or, worse, football season.

For what could’ve been the final hours of their season, the Indians were as close to full health as they could be. Edwin Encarnacion, who turned his right ankle in Game 2 and hadn’t taken so much as an at-bat since, batted cleanup as the designated hitter in Game 5. Kluber was on four days rest. They played at home, where they were 49-32. (They actually were better on the road, at 53-28.) They’d won twice here in the division series, lost twice there, and they’d have much preferred it here.

Aroldis Chapman pitched the final two innings of Game 5 for the save. (AP)
Aroldis Chapman pitched the final two innings of Game 5 for the save. (AP)

Then, in the very first inning, before the locals had reached the bottoms of their first beers, Kluber again showed signs of weakness. Gregorius, an underrated element of the Yankee resurgence, pumped a 1-and-2 fastball into the right-field bleachers. The Yankees led, 1-0. In the third, with Brett Gardner on first base, Gregorius clubbed a one-ball slider, and that too landed in the bleachers. They led, 3-0. In a distant bullpen, only seven outs into Kluber’s redemptive start, Indians left-hander Andrew Miller began to warm his arm. By the fourth inning, Miller was in the game, and Kluber was trudging to the dugout, his contribution to the series’ two starts, 6 1/3 innings and two good-sized deficits.

If they were to advance, the Indians would have to win from behind.

What stood before them was the massive and looming CC Sabathia, the 37-year-old Yankee left-hander who, seemingly forever ago, was a 20-year-old Indians left-hander. He’d made his first postseason start on this field two days short of 16 years before. He’d since become a bit more clever, a bit less forceful, and a bit rounder. He’d also come to embrace the years (and what they’d done to his knees, along with his fastball). He clung Wednesday to his slider, primarily. He did not allow a baserunner until Francisco Lindor singled to start the fourth. By then, he’d struck out six Indians, four of them on sliders. With Lindor on base in the fourth inning, and a dangerous part of the Indians’ order coming, he struck out Jason Kipnis with a slider and Encarnacion with another.

Sabathia struck out Carlos Santana to begin the fifth inning. The Yankees’ bullpen was silent. Then Austin Jackson singled. So did Jay Bruce. The slider had become more predictable. Near the bottom of the Indians’ lineup, Roberto Perez singled in a run. At the bottom, so did Giovanny Urshela.

Sabathia was done at 69 pitches. At nine strikeouts. At 4 1/3 innings. And when David Robertson entered and had Lindor ground into an inning-ending double play, preserving the 3-2 lead, Sabathia stood on the top dugout step and punched the air. The Yankees scored twice in the ninth, when the Indians committed two errors, their eighth and ninth of the series. Robertson and Aroldis Chapman did the rest.