CLEVELAND — Skip the scouting reports, put aside the analytical data. There’s really only one number you need to know when sizing up the Yankees’ chances in Wednesday night’s Game 5 against the Indians at Progressive Field.
And that number is three. As in three times the Yankees have faced elimination in the span of seven days, yet they’re still here, a testament to something inside the clubhouse that goes beyond statistics. Chemistry, character, whatever. Plenty of talented teams have gone belly up under less trying circumstances, but it takes a special group to surf those choppy waves, spit out some water and still manage to stay afloat.
“I think some it is the makeup, definitely, and the leadership in that room,” Joe Girardi said Tuesday. “But I think the belief that our young players have and the energy that they bring every day is part of that. We’ve been through a lot during the course of the season.”
Six months, and 162 games, is what forged these Yankees into a dangerous playoff team, much to the dismay of the top-seeded Indians. But October brings an entirely different type of pressure, especially when you crash the party as a wild card and end up down 3-0 to the underdog Twins, in your building, before even picking up a bat.
Remember that night? It already feels like years ago. The Yankees watched Luis Severino, their ace, booed off the mound after recording one out and giving up three runs. Could there be a more demoralizing start to a playoff run? But Girardi & Co. treated that first-inning horror show like a minor inconvenience, rallying for an 8-4 victory, and then had to pick themselves up off the canvas again after falling into an 0-2 hole against the defending AL champs.
Rock bottom, of course, was the Game 2 debacle. The blown five-run lead, Girardi’s fateful decision not to challenge the phantom hit-by-pitch, the subsequent Francisco Lindor grand slam, Jay Bruce’s tying homer. The Yankees’ complete disintegration over those 13 innings in the 9-8 loss made Joba Chamberlain’s TKO by the invading Lake Erie midges a decade earlier seem like a spoiled picnic by comparison.
Joe Torre calls that one of the biggest regrets of his Hall of Fame career, his failure to pull the Yankees off the field that night until the pests could be controlled. But Girardi’s series of Game 2 blunders replaced that in the minds of Yankees fans, and the crushing effect of that loss, essentially giving away a win they swiped from Indians ace Corey Kluber, figured to be too much to overcome.
The Yankees didn’t buy into that. After a day to flush that bad memory — and for Girardi to issue his “I screwed up” mea culpa to the masses — they went back to work in the Bronx as if nothing had happened. In Game 3, it was Masahiro Tanaka’s seven scoreless innings backed by Greg Bird’s solo homer for the 1-0 victory. For Game 4 the following night, Severino shook off his wild-card nightmare to go seven strong and the Yankees capitalized on Cleveland’s charity to grab a 7-3 win that sent the series back to Progressive Field, the scenario they expected to happen. Or convinced themselves it would unfold that way.
“Just knowing these guys and the way we responded all year,” said CC Sabathia, who will try to finish the job Wednesday with his Game 5 start. “This is a team that I felt like every time this season, when we had our backs against the wall, we responded really well. So I didn’t see why we couldn’t go home, play well, and end up back here.”
The Yankees should be proud of the return trip. But they’re also not taking any time to reflect on the accomplishment. When this season began, few outside the organization picked the Yankees to even finish over .500, never mind reach the playoffs. And fight back from an 0-2 deficit, against the 102-win Indians, a team that lost only four times in September? That didn’t seem possible.
The Indians won’t admit it, but they’re probably as surprised as anyone. Even playing Game 5 at home, this is not where they wanted to be. The Yankees? It’s their dream shot.
“I really do believe you gain confidence,” Girardi said. “I think they feel good about themselves.”
And there are three reasons for that. The Yankees are gunning to make it four.