NEW YORK — In the visitors’ dugout at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon, Cleveland Indians team President Chris Antonetti assessed the task ahead and sounded restraint. His team held a two-game hammerlock on the American League Division Series, fresh off a delirious comeback and unacquainted with losing. And yet, when Antonetti glanced across the diamond, he sensed in himself only trepidation.
“They are as good as any team that’s still playing,” Antonetti said before Game 3. “Their lineup is stacked. Their bullpen is great. Their starting pitching doesn’t get enough credit.”
The New York Yankees arrived in the postseason a year ahead of schedule, and now they will remain longer than expected. In the mist Monday night, the Baby Bombers progressed further toward full-blown adulthood as they forced a decisive Game 5 with a 7-3 victory, shipping the ALDS back to Cleveland behind Luis Severino’s seven redemptive innings, an early burst of offense and Cleveland’s atypical shoddiness.
The Indians believed it would be difficult to finish off New York, and the Yankees validated their fear. New York accumulated the second-best run differential in the majors this season, powered by a fierce, youthful lineup that hit the most homers in the majors. Rookie slugger Aaron Judge, 25, snapped out of his ALDS slump with a two-run double that knocked Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer from the game in the second inning. Catcher Gary Sanchez, 24, swatted an opposite-field solo homer in the sixth. Severino, a 23-year-old Cy Young aspirant, held Cleveland to three runs on four hits and one walk and struck out nine, a forceful rebound from his one-out debacle in the AL wild-card game.
“I told him after the game, he grew up a lot today,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said.
The Yankees, acclaimed for their youth, will hand their season to an elder Wednesday. CC Sabathia, the 37-year-old left-hander who came up in Cleveland, will attempt to steal the series on the mound he first climbed at age 20. “Would you pick anybody else?” Yankees designated hitter Chase Headley said. “There’s not going to be a moment that’s too big for him.”
The Indians will turn to presumptive Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who can pitch on regular rest because Manager Terry Francona opted to deploy him in Game 2, when he bombed in 2⅔ innings.
“It’s hard to imagine giving it to somebody better,” Francona said.
Late Friday night, the Indians had won 35 times in 39 tries. They will show up Wednesday to Progressive Field having lost twice in a row and, going back to last year’s World Series, five consecutive games that could have clinched a series, in need of a victory to keep their magical season alive. They will have to play like themselves, a simple task at which they failed utterly Monday night.
The Indians’ 102 regular season victories stood as a testament to clean baseball. They walked fewer batters than any team in the majors, and they committed the fewest errors in the American League. In Game 4, the Indians contributed to their own demise. They issued six walks, all in the first five innings, and committed four errors. The first six runs they allowed were unearned.
“The whole night, we made it hard on ourselves to win,” Francona said. “We kept trying, but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot. We can’t not finish plays. It just makes it really difficult.”
The Yankees capitalized early. In the second inning, third baseman Giovanny Urshela could not handle the line drive Starlin Castro smoked at him, a particular misfortune for his shin. Bauer, who carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning in Game 1, unraveled from there.
After his masterpiece Thursday night, Bauer noted he often needs a couple of innings to gain a feel for his curveball. In Game 1, his curve overwhelmed from the start. It came out flat in Game 4, and the Yankees clobbered it. Todd Frazier, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner and Judge swatted consecutive two-out hits in the second inning, and Judge’s double into the left field corner gave him his first hit of the series and the Yankees a 4-0 lead.
“I thought I executed well,” Bauer said.
With a day off Tuesday and a chance to clinch the series, Francona summoned and discarded pitchers like sunflower seeds. The Indians used four pitchers in the first three innings and eight altogether, none for more than five outs. All of them wobbled at one point or another, but the Yankees serially stranded men on base and missed chances to land a knockout blow.
The squandered opportunities led to an eighth inning with greater tension than a team with a four-run lead has any business of feeling. Girardi called on mammoth setup man Dellin Betances, whose dominance this season has been interspersed with spasms of extreme wildness. Betances nearly beheaded pinch hitter Yan Gomes with a fastball on the way to walking him, and he rifled four cringe-inducing balls to Francisco Lindor, peppering the backstop and scaring the bejesus out of the 47,316 in attendance.
“I was just a little hyped up, and I was yanking a lot of pitches,” Betances said. “I just got to be able to control myself a little better.”
Girardi hooked Betances as the mood darkened, especially with the five-run lead the Yankees blew in Game 2 still fresh in their minds. Tommy Kahnle, a July acquisition from the Chicago White Sox, calmed every nerve in the place, blowing through the middle of the Cleveland lineup while striking out two.
The Yankees could breathe, finally, and plan for a return to Cleveland. The Indians could only regret a sloppy night and dread a team they couldn’t finish off. The Indians’ season, a year after blowing a 3-1 lead in the World Series, would be incomplete without a title. They will need to fend off a young team growing up fast, coming on even stronger than they feared.
“Should be a lot of fun Wednesday,” Girardi said.