The Cleveland Indians entered the playoffs having gone 33-4 since Aug. 23. Even after their 22-game winning streak — the longest by any American League team ever, the second-longest in baseball history — ended, they won 11 of their final 14 regular-season games. One of baseball’s greatest untruths-presented-as-truth is that a team needs to be hot entering the playoffs. Here, once and forever, is your rebuttal.
The Indians took the first two games of the ALDS, the second in rather astonishing fashion. They overrode an 8-3 deficit against the Yankees’ ballyhooed bullpen. Jay Bruce hit the tying home run off David Robertson. Just before Francisco Lindor’s galvanizing grand slam, Joe Girardi didn’t challenge what was called a hit-by-pitch, but should have been an inning-ending strikeout. For that and other sins, some believed the Yankees’ next loss would be Girardi’s last as manager.
Girardi’s club hasn’t lost since. For the second consecutive postseason, Cleveland went 0-for-3 in closeout games. The team that stamped itself in September as Most Likely To Win The World Series was eliminated on Oct. 11.
A favorite line of Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling — once part of the Braves’ TV crew and the voice of the Hawks before Steve Holman became the voice of the Hawks — is that you can’t predict baseball. Well, sometimes you can. The six division winners this season were, back in March, the consensus choices to win those divisions. But playoff baseball? Forget about it.
The Indians made seven errors over the final two games. Corey Kluber, surely the American League Cy Young winner, was gone in the third inning of Game 2 — his team bailed him out that day/night — and in the fourth of Game 5. The team that seemed irresistible throughout September and utterly invincible after rallying in Game 2 never led again.
Any playoff series is scary, but a best-of-five is terrifying. The worst team in baseball can beat the best team over three given games. (Note that the Dodgers, who won 104 games, lost 11 in a row in September. Note also that the Dodgers, who appeared vulnerable over the regular season’s final month, swept Arizona in the NLDS.)
The Yankees aren’t nearly a bad team, but it’s not as if everything went right for them. The famous rookie Aaron Judge batted .050 in the series, striking out 16 times in 20 at-bats. The famous deadline acquisition Sonny Gray started Game 1, lasted 3 1/3 innings and didn’t work again. But Masahiro Tanaka worked seven shutout innings, and Greg Bird hit a home run off the peerless reliever Andrew Miller in Game 3, and that 1-0 victory changed everything.
It has been true for a while — pretty much since the wild card was instituted — that playoff baseball isn’t like regular-season baseball, but playoff baseball today isn’t like playoff baseball even five years ago. Managers have grasped that they cannot wait for a starting pitcher to steady himself, that the most important inning mightn’t be the ninth but the one at hand. Miller was deployed by Terry Francona in the seventh inning of Game 1 and the fourth inning of Game 5. Aroldis Chapman had a five-out save in Game 3 and a six-out save in the clincher.
If you’re looking for an overarching conclusion to this … well, I’m not sure one exists. Baseball is a funny game, and not always funny ha-ha. The Indians looked like the best team in their sport on the morning of Oct. 8. By midnight Oct. 11, they were gone. They lost three in a row, something they hadn’t done since July 30 through Aug. 1, at the time they couldn’t lose three in a row.
If they played this series again next week, Cleveland might sweep. But they don’t play again next week. The Yankees get to face Houston, which now looks like — deep breath — the best team in baseball. Which means the Yankees could win in five. You cannot handicap October.
Since the advent of the wild card, 22 teams have won 100 games. Only three of those won the World Series. Five of those non-champion 100-win teams were the Atlanta Braves. Maybe you knew that already.