CLEVELAND – It may only be a first-round series, and it doesn’t put another trophy in the case for a franchise that has 27 world championships, but this comeback against the Indians surely deserves a prominent position in the Yankees’ storied history.
Not just because they were down 0-2 against what was the best team in baseball over the final two months of the season – though that’s certainly a gigantic accomplishment in itself.
No, you can’t ignore the melodrama of that Game 2 loss, when the Yankees flew home fighting the feeling they’d blown the series by giving away an 8-3 lead, on a night when their manager had made a colossal blunder that seemed to set himself up to get fired.
No way they were coming all the way back from all that baggage.
Yet here they were in Game 5, gutting out a 5-2 win against the Indians in a do-or-die Game 5 that was a showcase for Didi Gregorius, who hit two home runs in a Derek Jeter-worthy October performance, as well as the bulked-up bullpen GM Brian Cashman saw as a way to perhaps win a championship a year ahead of his rebuilding plan.
Along the way the Yankees roughed up Corey Kluber, thought to be Superman, for the second time in this series, knocking him out in the fourth inning.
And they got dominance from 37-year old CC Sabathia in the early innings, which proved to be just enough to turn the game over to David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman.
The late innings were nerve-wracking, as was practically this entire series, as they clung to a 3-2 lead until pushing across two insurance runs in the top of the ninth.
That gave Chapman, who had gotten three outs in the eight, some margin for error, and he closed out the win on the same field where he did so for the Cubs to win the World Series last October.
The Indians choked away a 2-0 series lead.
And so, remarkably, the Yankees are moving on to play the Astros in the ALCS, with the dream of an improbable championship still an exhilarating possibility for this group of Baby Bombers.
Who knows how much longer the wild ride lasts, but at the very least this team has surely saved Joe Girardi’s job, if indeed the Yankee brass was considering firing him for that costly non-challenge in Game 2.
Furthemore, Cashman can take another bow for the trades he made to make this happen. The deal with the White Sox for Robertson, as well as Tommy Kahnle and Todd Frazier, turned out to be a season-saver.
Robertson has been great since he arrived, spectacular in the wild-card victory over the Twins, and just plain clutch on this night, coming in for Sabathia in the fifth inning with runners at first and second to get an inning-ending ground-ball double play – slamming the door on the Indians’ only real rally of the night.
Of course, Cashman also turned Chapman into top prospect Gleyber Torres at the 2016 trade deadline, then re-signed him for $ 86 million. And despite Chapman’s struggles at times this season, which cost him his closer spot for a few weeks, the Yankees wouldn’t have won this series without him.
Finally, Gregorius already had proven to be an all-time steal, coming over from the Diamondbacks three years ago for Shane Greene, but this was a game to make him part of Yankee’ October folklore, along with Jeter and Reggie and the others.
Two home runs against Kluber in a winner-take-all game on the road?
They can start planning his Yankeeography right now.
Aroldis Chapman reacts afer completing a six-out save.
(Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Kluber, after all, was supposed to be a modern-day Bob Gibson, and he did pitch awfully well in the post-season last year – until Game 7 of the World Series, anyway.
He was the best pitcher in baseball the second half of this season, and practically unhittable in September, when he posted a 0.84 ERA in five starts.
So you had to think that, given a chance to redeem himself for his unusually poor start in Game 2, he’d take advantage of it.
But Gregorius got him for home runs in the first and third innings, long balls that were also a payoff on Girardi’s decision to move Girardi up a spot in the lineup, from No. 4 to No. 3, starting with Game 4.
Indeed, it turned out to be crucial in getting Gregorius to the plate in the first inning on Wednesday night, as grabbing the early lead felt vital on this night.
After all, there was huge pressure on the Indians to win this series after they raised expectations so high the way they played the final six weeks of the season, winning 22 straight games and 33 of their final 37.
Falling behind early had to add to that pressure. Maybe the Yankees sensed that, or maybe they just weren’t going to be denied.
Whatever, when the final out was made, it felt like something more significant than just a division-round victory. Maybe it proves to be an important building block for next year and beyond, or , who knows, maybe it was just a first step to something much bigger this October.