How the Indians played their cards wrong and lost

Sometimes you have to play your cards close to your chest. Other times you can lay it all out there and go for broke. The key to winning is knowing which strategy is appropriate.

Despite 102 wins and a 22-game winning streak, the Cleveland Indians were eliminated by the New York Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Division Series on Wednesday night. The Indians were heavy favorites in the series and favorites to take the rubber match in Cleveland. So, what went wrong for the Indians? They overplayed their hand.

The major turning point in the series came during the Game 2 slugfest in Cleveland. The Yankees pasted starting pitcher Corey Kluber for six runs in two and two-thirds innings, then manager Terry Francona emptied the bullpen for seven additional pitchers. The load of the additional pitchers gave the Yankees the look that they needed going into the final three games of the series. In contrast, the Yankees stayed true to their bullpen hierarchy and worked just five extra arms. The Indians came out on top in the bottom of the 13-inning struggle on a walk-off single by catcher Yan Gomes.

An ace in the hole, Masahiro Tanaka gave the Yankees a chance to stay shallow in the bullpen in Game 3, as manager Joe Girardi used only relievers David Robertson (he didn’t pitch in Game 4) and Aroldis Chapman. Meanwhile, the Indians called on relievers Andrew Miller and Tyler Olson for the second game in a row. Neither pitcher surrendered any runs, but the Yankees gained familiarity with both hurlers and won 1-0 to avoid the sweep.

After his dominating performance in Game 1, the Indians trotted out starter Trevor Bauer in an attempt to clinch the series in Game 4. Bauer worked six and two-thirds scoreless innings in Game 1, allowed just two hits and fanned eight. It was enough film for the Yankees to improve on his next start as they tagged him for four runs and an early exit after just one and two-thirds innings. New York, on the other hand, had a yet-to-be-seen starter in Luis Severino, who worked seven innings and allowed three runs behind four hits.

With the series even, momentum swung to New York as the series shifted to Cleveland. By the time Game 5 rolls around, it’s time to bring the best that you’ve got with a short leash. Both teams did just that.

Kluber took the mound opposite C.C. Sabathia, and Kluber lasted just three and two-thirds after he gave up two dingers to Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius. New York went into the top of the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead and saw reliever Cody Allen, who had already appeared in three games in the series. With two runners on, outfielder Brett Gardner singled to right and drove in a pair of insurance runs to seal the series.

Francona went with the guys he trusted to bring him home, which is fine. But in the end, he showed his hand early and the Yankees controlled the series late.

Photo by Brigham Berthold

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