Sometimes, the best team runs empty at the worst time

New York YankeesAfter the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the 1953 World Series, Duke Snider swore to New York Herald-Tribune writer Roger Kahn, much later to write The Boys of Summer, ”I still say we’re the better team.” The ’53 Dodgers owned the National League but lost the Series to the Yankees in five.

“That’s the hell of it,” Kahn replied. “That’s the rottenest thing in this life, isn’t it? The best team doesn’t always get to win.”

The Indians are learning and re-learning that now. The best team in this year’s American League got pushed out of the postseason in five, by a Yankee team that was supposed to be a year away from complete contention. A Yankee team that surprised one and all by nudging to the wild card game and then bumping the Twins to one side in it.

That makes one of last year’s World Series combatants an early exit. And the Indians were the guys who got thatclose to winning last year’s Series. The Cubs and the Nationals tangle in Washington this afternoon, after Stephen Strasburg’s back-from-the-infirmary masterpiece in Game Four of their National League division series. A Cub exit won’t sting even half as much as the Indians’ does. Believe it or not.

Maybe their stupefying regular season finish left the Indians with just enough in the tank to win Games One and Two but not enough to put the Yankees away for the winter. On paper the two teams were reasonably matched. On the field the Indians after Game Two played like exhausted souls and the Yankees seized the opportunities. Because, sometimes, the best team ends up beating themselves as much as the other guys beat them.

How did a team that forged a 22-game winning streak and finished the season 33-4 end its year with Austin Jackson looking at strike three from Aroldis Chapman? How did they keep Aaron Judge, the Yankees’ Rookie of the Year lock, who obliterated the rookie single season home run record, in such complete check that he struck out more in the division series than Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn did in a single season—and still lose?

How did an offense that struck out only 18.5 percent of the time as a team on the season—only the Astros, who get to tangle with the Baby Bombers in the American League Championship Series, struck out less—come up hitting .171 in the division series?

Well, the Yankees didn’t hit that much better overall. Their team batting average for the set was .201. But in that thirty point difference the Yankees made their hits count for a lot more. And the Yankees’ leadoff man, Brett Gardner, outhit the Indians top of the order table setters, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, by himself—the Indians’ duo hit .105 in the set to Gardner’s .320.

They’re wondering whether the back issues that interrupted Corey Kluber’s season at one point didn’t flare up again in the division series. Kluber insists he was healthy enough to pitch, but he did surrender four home runs in six and a third innings total work in his two series starts, and his series ERA was 12.79.

The second guessers are going to have a winter picnic trying to determine why Indians manager Terry Francona elected to start Trevor Bauer, his Game One winner, on short rest for Game Four when Bauer has never pitched well on short rest and was gone after surrendering four unearned runs in an inning and two-thirds.

Bauer pitched a masterpiece in Game One. You get why Francona wanted him for Game Four with the second of three chances to put the Yankees away, but not having a contingency just in case—like maybe Josh Tomlin or Mike Clevenger, a pair of starters who were moved to the bullpen for the set, but were rested enough to open Game Four with maybe three or four innings—helped put the Indians away without Bauer available for Game Five on regular rest.

So Francona left himself no choice but to turn to a fully rested Kluber for Game Five. Kluber can deny his back was any kind of issue, but Francona won’t deny he thought his man was struggling, saying Kluber “was fighting a lot” just to stay on the mound.

Speaking of unearned runs, the Indians surrendered 21 total runs in the series and fourteen of them were unearned. With three Yankees’ starting pitchers—CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino—pitching like Hall of Famers in the making the Indians had exactly minus zero margin for error.

So how on earth did the Indians’ usually capable and smart defense commit nine errors all series long, including seven over Games Four and Five, while the Yankee defense committed only three errors in Game Two?

Where on earth, too, was Dan Otero? The Indians’ vaunted bullpen had its hiccups in the division series but they were mostly their usual lights out self Yet with the season on the line. Otero on the season was only the fifth best relief pitcher in the Show by ERA, yet he was left off the Indians’ postseason roster.

Maybe there was little room for him, anyway, and maybe Francona just doesn’t feel comfortable with a near-junkballer who pitches to his defenders as often as he strikes anyone out, but Otero at least earned the right to try.

That was, after all, Andrew Miller whose otherwise sound division series performance was interrupted by more than a few extended at-bats and—after he’d just ended a bases-loaded threat in Game Three—Greg Bird hitting a 1-1 mistake into the second deck over right field. For the only run the Yankees needed in a game where Tanaka tied the Indians into knots at the plate and Aroldis Chapman knew how to shake off a pair of one-out singles to save it.

“I think the whole deal is they got to their bullpen before we did,” said Jay Bruce, the former Met who rode the Indians wave to become their one-man run production crew in Game One. “If they get a lead, they’re capable of going as far as they want.”

“They better like their chances. They have a lot of talent,” said Miller, who started 2016 as a Yankee but was dealt to the Indians midway during the season and made a splash for himself last postseason. “They have a deep pocketbook and go out and get things that make them better. I tip my cap to [Yankee general manager Brian] Cashman and the front office.”

Bird ruined Miller the game after it looked as though Yankee manager Joe Girardi had all but blown his team’s season, after they’d gotten to a postseason they weren’t supposed to reach for another year. It’s reasonable to guess nobody’s really going to remember Girardi not demanding a review of the pitch that hit Lonnie Chisenhall’s bat and not his person, but which loaded the pads for Lindor to rip a Game Two-changing grand slam off the Progressive Field foul pole.

Instead, the Yankees took it as motivation and took hold of their skipper’s back while they were at it. “He got a lot of criticism after that second game, and we talked a lot, me and him,” Frazier said after the Yankees pulled the corks to celebrate. “I couldn’t be happier for him.”

The Yankees out-pitched the Indians when they absolutely had to. They out-hit the Indians when they absolutely had to. Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius jerked himself into prompt and maybe permanent comparisons to Derek Jeter with his defense throughout the series (he’s actually better with the glove than Jeter ever was) and his swinging in Game Five, including the pair of home runs that probably made the big difference.

Gregorius isn’t sure how far to embrace the comparisons. “That question never gets old,” Gregorius said. “To be honest, I mean, it was just after he played his long, successful career here in New York, I’m the guy to follow him.” Maybe he’s not worried about being the second coming of Jeter as much as he is the first coming of Gregorius. The Yankees will take it happily.

Francona asked his closer Cody Allen for seven outs in Game Five. He almost made it. But Indians left fielder Jackson threw wild enough to let Aaron Hicks turn a one-out single into two bases. Allen then walked Todd Frazier with two out. And Gardner lined a single to right to send home two more unearned runs when Bruce in right field threw errantly.

Chapman looked almost sympathetic toward the Indians when that 1-2 fastball caught Jackson frozen as it hit the ceiling of the strike zone to end it. Almost. For maybe a split second.

No Indian would disagree with Francona’s postmortem. “We came down the stretch playing very good baseball, and we did some things in this series that I don’t think were characteristic of our team,” the skipper said. “We made some errors, kicked the ball around a little bit. Sometimes you don’t swing the bat. That’s part of it. But we made it harder to win in some cases, especially the last two games.”

Take heed, Houston Astros. These Yankees will exploit the merest mistake. Your American League Championship Series isn’t going to be anything close to a cocktail party. The best team in the American League just learned that the hard, painful way.

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