The Yankees needed every minute of the longest nine-inning game in baseball history to beat Cleveland and complete a mini-sweep with what eventually became Thursday morning’s 10-9 victory at Progressive Field.
It took four hours and 50 minutes to decide a winner, due to a pair of rain delays, three ties and numerous lead changes. The last came during a two-run ninth inning off Cleveland closer Brad Hand, whose 9-8 edge evaporated on Gary Sanchez’s tying sacrifice fly before he was done in by DJ LeMahieu’s two-out single.
"Tonight just had the feeling that these guys weren’t going to be denied," manager Aaron Boone said. "They weren’t going to lose. They just kept scratching, kept clawing, Cleveland kept answering, and we were finally able to outlast them."
That’s how slim the margin was between jubilation and elimination in Game 2 of this wild-card series. The new playoff round was an added gimmick this year because of the virus-shortened regular season, but it spawned one of the wildest, most dramatic games anybody had seen.
While it wasn’t do-or-die for the Yankees, the night (morning?) still felt like a matter of survival. They had to fight back from 4-0 deficit in the first inning, due to Masahiro Tanaka’s shaky start, and rode the emotional swings of Gio Urshela’s grand slam in the fourth and Sanchez’s go-ahead two-run homer in the sixth.
Sanchez refused to use the night as vindication, despite the fact that it obviously was -- both for him and a Yankees team whose poor performance heading into the playoffs raised doubts about how long they might stick around.
"You know, the regular season is over," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "Whatever happened in the regular season, at this point, doesn't matter. That’s the thing about the playoffs -- everybody starts from zero. It's a matter of focusing and doing the best you can. Do your job and win series."
The Yankees, however, have a few more 2020 demons to slay in the coming days, notably the top-seeded Rays, who they will face in next week’s Division Series at San Diego’s Petco Park. The neutral SoCal site is a welcome spot for two reasons -- it’s not the drab Tropicana Field, and no risk of rain, which everyone had their fill of Wednesday night. The Yankees do come in saddled with a 2-8 record against the Rays in the regular season, as well as a history of bad blood between the two AL East rivals.
"They've been the best team in our league all year, so we're excited to go play the best team," Boone said. "We know they're going to be tough and we know they'll be ready for us. But we look forward to that challenge and hopefully we can we can turn the tables on them this time."
The Yankees should be feeling pretty good about themselves about what they did in Cleveland. They beat Cy Young favorite Shane Bieber in a Game 1 rout, hitting four homers, and followed that up by showing a tenacious bulldog mentality to prevail in Game 2. With three homers on Wednesday, including Giancarlo Stanton’s second in as many days, they also improved to 30-6 all-time in the playoffs when hitting three or more home runs.
"I think a lot of people, understandably, were probably questioning us coming in," Boone said. " And we've probably caught some people's attention again that when we're playing at our best, we can beat anybody. But I would also caution it with we haven't done anything yet. This is just a stepping stone for us. We understand that this is just one step along the way and we've got a lot of big things ahead."
The chess match between Boone and Cleveland counterpart Sandy Alomar Jr. -- who is filling in for the ailing Terry Francona -- factored heavily into the outcome. In the fourth inning, Alomar pulled starter Carlos Carrasco to bring in his bullpen terminator, James Karinchak, to face Urshela with the bases loaded. Karinchak had surrendered only one homer in 131 plate appearances to that point, and struck out nearly half the hitters he’d faced. But with the count 3-and-2, Urshela attacked the shin-high fastball, coming in at 96 mph, and drove it 432 feet into the leftfield seats.
Urshela flipped his bat as the Yankees’ bench erupted. The momentum had shifted, and in such demoralizing fashion that some may have thought Cleveland’s spirit snapped on that swing. Those people could not have been more wrong.
Despite the Yankees’ best efforts to tack on - Stanton’s sac fly made it 6-4 in the fifth -- Cleveland kept pace. Boone made his first questionable decision by sticking with a fading Tanaka into the fifth inning, no doubt swayed by his easy 11-pitch fourth, and then compounded it by letting him stay through Lindor’s leadoff double and a walk to Hernandez. That put the tying runs on for Jose Ramirez -- the likely AL MVP -- and Boone called for Chad Green.
Green was the logical choice for that spot, but it wasn’t the best matchup, as Ramirez was 4-for-7 against him with a double and home run. Sure enough, Green flipped him two straight curveballs and Ramirez ripped a two-run double inside the rightfield line to tie the score at 6.
The bullpen’s sudden vulnerability would be a recurring theme for the Yankees in this one, even after Sanchez — back in the lineup after sitting for Gerrit Cole’s start in Game 1 — put them on top again with his two-run homer in the sixth. The much-maligned Sanchez lofted a 356-foot fly ball that barely cleared the rightfield wall, reminiscent of the short-porch back home in the Bronx.
Zack Britton bailed out Green with a huge double play to end the sixth, but his pair of walks in the seventh set up one of the gutsier moves of the night by Alomar, who pulled the scorching Josh Naylor for lefty masher Jordan Luplow.
Boone countered with Jonathan Loaisiga — not Adam Ottavino — and Luplow made Alomar a genius by launching a tying two-run double. When Loaisiga opened with two walks in the eighth, Boone had no choice but to call on Chapman, whose first pitch was a go-ahead RBI single to Hernandez.
After the Yankees rallied for two runs in the ninth, however, Chapman returned after the 35-minute half-inning to whiff Franmil Reyes with a 100-mph heater and this time got Luplow on a grounder to short. When pinch-hitter Oscar Mercado should have whiffed for the final out but reached on the passed ball, it seemed destined to play a role in this bizarre script. Chapman ended the drama, however, by finally striking out Austin Hedges.
"That was one of the best games I’ve ever played in in my life," Urshela said.
After what we’ve already seen from the Yankees, and a heated rematch with the Rays now set for the West Coast, keep those superlatives handy.