Relieving starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco with the bases loaded against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, however, James Karinchak couldn’t provide a heroic moment. Nor could rookie Triston McKenzie in the sixth, or veteran Brad Hand in the ninth. There were simply too many good takes, too many well-timed swings, too many damn good hitters in that damn Yankees lineup, pummeling Cleveland’s world-renowned pitching staff for a second-straight night to win Game 2 of the best-of-three AL Wild Card series. New York advances to face No. 1 seed Tampa Bay in the ALDS, which begins on Monday.
Sandy Alomar Jr., Cleveland’s acting manager, didn’t hesitate in bringing in Karinchak, the rookie sensation who was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball this season. In 27 innings, he had struck out 53 batters, and allowed just one home run. Waiting to face him was Gio Urshela, the third baseman Cleveland had given up on and traded away for spare change back in 2018, only to see blossom into a star last season. Urshela had never before faced Karinchak — this enormous 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander whose manager calls him Gronk, who fidgets and squirms on the mound before unleashing fastballs and curveballs from way above his head that miss bats at a virtually unprecedented rate. When Urshela worked the count 3-2, he saw one of those explosive fastballs make a beeline for the inside corner at the knees. He swung hard. He didn’t miss.[embedded content]
Two more walks to Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner later, and Cleveland’s not-so-secret-but-certainly-lethal weapon left the game without recording an out. New reliever Phil Maton stranded those runners, but was right back in hot water after a walk and a double started the fifth. A fly ball by Stanton chased home the runner from third, and with their starting pitcher finally in a groove, the Yankees’ momentum was building like a fire on Lake Erie.
Cleveland quickly stole it back. Lindor, who entered the bottom of the fifth mired in a 3-for-27 slump, yanked a double to right field to lead things off against Tanaka. A walk to Cesar Hernandez caused New York to summon from the bullpen Chad Green, who Ramirez welcomed to the game by smashing another double to right, bringing home two runs to tie the game.[embedded content]
The long, difficult night for two of baseball’s most-feared bullpens was only beginning. McKenzie began the top of the sixth inning with a walk issued to Gardner, then served up a first-pitch home run to Gary Sanchez to put New York back in front 8-6. Cleveland attempted to wrestle its way back in the bottom of the inning, putting two runners on with one out, but a move to bring in groundball demon Zack Britton accomplished just what the Yankees needed. Lindor bounced into a double play at third, and Cleveland was held in check.
New York was not so fortunate in the seventh. Britton retired the first two hitters of the inning, but then lost Carlos Santana and Franmil Reyes each to 3-1 walks, setting the stage for Josh Naylor. Naylor, the second-year outfielder acquired by Cleveland in the deal that sent Clevinger to San Diego, was already threatening to gain folk hero status — after a 4-for-4 night in his playoff debut on Tuesday, he hit a first-inning double in Game 2, which made him the first player in history to collect a hit in each of his first five career postseason at-bats.
It was a surprise, then, when Alomar called right-handed-hitting Jordan Luplow off the bench in an effort to gain the platoon advantage against the lefty Britton. Yankees manager Aaron Boone, however, simply reset the advantage by bringing in right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga from the bullpen. Taking the bat out of Naylor’s hot hands in such an important situation had Cleveland fans certifiably steamed — for about 30 seconds.[embedded content]
An inning later, Cleveland finally regained a lead. DeShields and Lindor worked back-to-back walks to start off the eighth, prompting Boone to bring in Aroldis Chapman. Hernandez swung at the first offering from Chapman and dumped a pop-up into the perfect spot in shallow left field, scoring DeShields with a single to put his team ahead 9-8. With two runners on and nobody out, Cleveland seemed to be in a prime spot to quickly add to that lead. But after a strikeout by Ramirez, Cleveland again found itself on the losing end of a sparkling play by its old teammate.[embedded content]
Hand was assigned the ninth inning, and lost his grasp on it almost immediately. Stanton walked on five pitches to lead it off, and Urshela followed with a single. Hand succeeded in getting weak contact from Torres, who floated a weak pop-up behind the mound. Instead of securing a crucial first out, however, Hand fumbled the ball, allowing it to drop to the grass for an infield single. Two batters later, Sanchez flew out deep enough to center to allow a pinch running Mike Tauchman to score the tying run from third. DJ LeMahieu followed with a single to center, putting the Yankees back in front.
Chapman allowed just one baserunner in the ninth, and finished the game with a strikeout of Austin Hedges.[embedded content]
The big day for Yankees bats backed up the worst postseason performance of starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka‘s career. After inclement weather delayed the game’s start about 40 minutes, the Yankees right-hander took the mound in the bottom of the first inning, and quickly surrendered back-to-back doubles to Hernandez and Ramirez. That’s as far as he got before the game was delayed because of weather again, pausing for about the same amount of time it took to start things in the first place.
When he returned to the mound, Tanaka’s problems continued. After a harmless pop fly by Santana, he walked Reyes, then surrendered a two-run double to Naylor and an RBI single to Roberto Perez. This wasn’t some unlucky BABIP nightmare for Tanaka, either — he was getting absolutely shelled:
not an ideal inning pic.twitter.com/sLcvRIVnKe
— Foolish Baseball (@FoolishBB) October 1, 2020
Tanaka settled in after that, but wound up allowing six runs in just four innings of work — an uncharacteristic night for a pitcher who entered the game with a career 1.76 playoff ERA in 46 innings. In terms of unpleasant pitching surprises, though, nothing this week will trump Cleveland’s. The staff that led the majors in WAR and FIP and placed second in ERA allowed the Yankees to score 22 runs over just two games. After getting bitten badly by the home run ball on Tuesday, however, it was command issues that spelled doom for Cleveland in Game 2. Seven pitchers combined to walk 12 Yankees hitters, helping them to score 10 runs despite knocking just eight base hits.
The Yankees’ performance against Cleveland should be cause for nerves for the similarly-pitching-reliant Rays, who face them in the next round, as well as any other team that may match up with them down the road.
At first blush, New York’s 33-27 record this season might make one think this team isn’t the full-blown juggernaut we expected it to be, coming off back-to-back 100-win seasons and a blockbuster free agent signing. What that relatively benign record conceals, however, is a season that had enough highs and lows for a full 162-game slate. The Yankees lost seven in a row in August, seven of eight in early September, and six of eight to finish the regular season. It also won eight of its first nine games to start the year, had another six-game win streak in August, and a 10-game win streak in September.
There have been times when the Yankees have looked like a flimsy house of cards, and other times when they’ve looked like the golden retriever who barrels through it while running around the house. The Rays won eight of their 10 meetings with New York this season; each time the Yankees have slumped, Tampa Bay has been a part of the reason. In those meetings, the Rays allowed just 3.4 runs per game. Maybe that means they know how to handle this beast from the Bronx, that they won’t make the same mistakes Cleveland did. Or maybe the door bell just rang, and there’s a jingling collar approaching from the distance, while Tampa Bay is pretending it doesn’t hear anything.
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