By Cliff Corcoran
Just 16 of the 78 teams in Major League postseason history to fall behind 0-2 in a best-of-five series have battled back to force a winner-take-all Game 5. The 2017 New York Yankees now count themselves among that number and, on Wednesday night in Cleveland, will attempt to become the 10th of those teams to complete the comeback and win the series (8 p.m. ET on FS1). Standing in their way will be American League Cy Young Award candidate, Corey Kluber, fully-rested relief ace Andrew Miller and the rest of an Indians team that led the AL with 102 wins and the Majors with a +254 run differential. The odds would seem to be against the Yankees, but their two home wins in this Division Series have gone a long way toward evening them.
When it comes to Kluber and Miller, the Yankees have shown little deference to either in this series, lighting Kluber up for six runs in 2 2/3 innings in Game 2 (his worst start since April 2014, per game score), and handing Miller the loss in Game 3 via a Greg Bird solo home run that accounted for the only scoring in that game. Miller didn't strike out a batter in either of his past two appearances in this series, totaling two innings and eight batters faced. He failed to register a strikeout in only one of his previous 18 postseason appearances, and only had consecutive appearances without a strikeout once this season (the next time out, he gave up a home run and blew a save).
Still, both the Yankees and Indians have to expect better from both of Cleveland's aces in Game 5. After all, Kluber led the Majors this year in ERA (2.25), ERA+ (202), DRA (2.05), WHIP (0.87), strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.36), complete games and shutouts (5 and 3, respectively, both tied with Ervin Santana), and, yes, wins (18, tied with three others, including rotation-mate Carlos Carrasco). He also allowed as many runs (6) in all of September (over six starts and 43 innings, posting a 0.84 ERA on the month), as he did in Game 2. Also, powerful as the Yankee offense is, Cleveland held it to a total of one run in Games 1 and 3.
That puts significant pressure on the 37-year-old shoulders of CC Sabathia, a ghost of Cleveland's past, whose Game 2 start looked good against Kluber's disaster, but likely wouldn't get the job done if repeated in Game 5. Sabathia allowed three runs through the first five innings of Game 2, then was lifted with a man on and a man out in the sixth, only to watch the Yankees bullpen allow that runner to score on Francisco Lindor's game-changing grand slam.
In that game, Yankees manager Joe Girardi may have been too quick to hook Sabathia, who had thrown just 77 pitches, but CC will not get a longer leash here with the Yankees once again facing elimination. Luis Severino's impressive seven innings in Game 4 has left the team's outstanding bullpen well rested, and Girardi will likely not hesitate to use it.
In contrast, Miller was the only Cleveland reliever who didn't pitch in Game 4, but only repurposed starter Danny Salazar threw more than 24 pitches, so it should be all-hands-on-deck for both teams. That could include the Yankees' Game 1 and 3 starters Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka, if necessary, and possibly even Cleveland's Game 3 and 4 starters, Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, the latter of whom threw just 55 pitches on Monday, albeit on three-days rest.
With the exception of New York's seven-run outburst in Game 4 and that wild Game 2, which Cleveland won 9-8 in 13 innings, runs have been hard to come by in this series. Both teams have scored just 16 runs through the first four games. Both have been shut out once, the Yankees in Game 1, Cleveland in Game 3. Cleveland's leading hitter has been right fielder Jay Bruce, who is 4-for-16 with a .278 on-base percentage, but has three extra-base hits, including two big home runs, one of them the game-tying solo shot in Game 2. Lindor's grand slam remains his only hit of the series, while regular-season MVP candidate Jose Ramirez is 2-for-17 with one walk and no extra-base hits.
The Yankees have spread things around a bit better, with Bird leading the way (in addition to his homer off Miller in Game 3, he had a two-run shot in Game 2 and has reached base at a .444 clip). However, Aaron Judge's two-run double in Game 4 is his only hit of the series so far. Didi Gregorius is also looking for his second hit of the series (though he has walked six times, two of them intentional). Perhaps most remarkably, the designated hitters of the two teams (Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley, Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion) are a combined 0-for-28. Perhaps if Encarnacion is able to return from the sprained ankle he suffered in Game 2, he can get the DHs off the schneid in Game 5.
Whichever team emerges to face the Astros in the American League Championship Series, which begins on Friday, it has had at least one signature 2017 MLB postseason moment. For Cleveland, it was the Game 2 comeback, keyed by Lindor's slam, Bruce's game-tying homer and Yan Gomes walk-off double. For the Yankees, it was their 1-0 win in Game 3, the key plays of which were Judge robbing Lindor of a two-run homer in the sixth and Bird's solo shot off Miller in the seventh. The latter was strongly reminiscent of the Yankees' 1-0 win over the A's in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS, a win sparked by Jorge Posada's solo home run and Derek Jeter's run-saving flip play as well as seven scoreless innings from Mike Mussina. That, of course, was the one other time that New York has come back from an 0-2 deficit to win a Division Series.
But the past is merely prologue. If there's one reliable thing history does tell us about series such as this, it is that whatever team does win Wednesday night will likely do so with the help of a hit, a play, or a performance that its fans, and baseball fans in general, will remember for years to come.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.