Progressive Field was alive. After an explosive start by the Yankees in Game Five, the Indians fought their way back. In fact, they were one strike away from sending the decisive match to the bottom of the ninth, down just a run. Aroldis Chapman was waiting to close things out for the Bombers, but had been sitting in the dugout for over 20 minutes after struggling to miss bats in the bottom of the eighth. Cleveland fans were pumped up and ready to witness the second walk-off win of the series.
Then Brett Gardner fought off a high fastball from closer Cody Allen on a 2-2 count. Then another. And then another. Cleveland fans rose to their feet each time, anticipating a strikeout to end the Yankees’ bid for a much-needed insurance run. With each foul ball by Gardner, fans found it more and more tedious to stand up and once again get behind Allen to finish the job.
Gardner’s seemingly endless at-bat subdued the crowd. His base hit 12 pitches later silenced them.
The longest tenured Yankee smacked the 12th pitch of the at-bat through the right side for a RBI single, which eventually led to another insurance run after an uncharacteristic error by the Cleveland defense. Instead of a pressure-packed ninth, the Yankees closer was able to exhale and put Cleveland away. The bottom of the ninth, and maybe the series as a whole looks a lot different without Gardner’s resilience at the plate.
Gardner came into the game with a batting average well below .200 when facing a two-strike count. He saw Allen’s best multiple times in the at-bat, from fastballs up in the zone to nasty breaking balls in the dirt, which Gardner was able to lay off. By the time he laced that line drive past a diving Jose Ramirez, you just knew the odds were building in his favor as Allen ran out of put-away pitches.
There’s no telling what would have happened in the bottom of the inning with just a one run lead, but Gardner’s at-bat felt like the moment that clinched the Yankees’ unbelievable comeback. In a way, it epitomized the series as a whole. The Yankees just kept battling.
Gardner’s at-bat was nothing new. He was eighth in the American League in pitches per plate appearance. Todd Frazier, whose heads-up baserunning gave the Yankees a 5-2 lead after the Gardner hit, ranks fourth. Aaron Judge is first. The Yankees have made the most of their at-bats all season long, and Gardner reminded everyone of that at the most opportune time.
The Yankees have battled at the plate all year, and they took that approach when they fell behind 2-0 in the series after suffering the most devastating loss imaginable. The fact that the Yankees are still playing baseball in 2017 after the events of Game Two is as shocking at is it exhilarating. They kept fighting the same way they have since April, and never changed their approach. Gardner’s heroics may have been an exclamation point on the most electric Yankees playoff series since 2003, but it was also the perfect summary of a team that refuses to surrender.