When the Yankees took a 2-0 lead early in Game 2 of the ALDS, they looked to be in the catbird seat. They led a Cleveland team whose lineup has run cold in October, having produced a measly three runs over their first 33 postseason innings. Spotted a quick advantage, it seemed the Yankees would be well on their way to a comfortable series lead if their pitching could continue to keep the Guardians’ bats quiet.
Yet the pitching did just that, and still here we are, with the Yankees on their way to Ohio with the series tied 1-1. While the club’s run prevention executed almost flawlessly for much of the afternoon, the Yankee offense went dormant at the worst time, dominated by a stellar Cleveland pitching effort.
To me, half of the story is Yankee offensive struggles, and the other half that of excellent execution from Guardians pitching. It all started with Shane Bieber, who showed off his league-best command over the course of 5.2 solid innings. Bieber entered in the unenviable position of needing to navigate the Yankee lineup without the employ of anything resembling premium velocity. The right-hander operated well-aware of that fact, dancing through the Yankees with deftly-located sliders and cutters.
In fact, Bieber checked his four-seamer at the door, using it just 26 percent of the time, one of the four lowest rates he’s posted all year. The game plan from the get-go was to pepper the Yankees’ right-handed sluggers with sliders and cutters away, while attacking lefties with curves and some four-seamers.
For the most part, it worked. Look how well Bieber located his cutter away to righties:
Just as good was Bieber’s work with the slider against righties:
Bieber put a few sliders in a position for the Yankees to hit, but almost all the rest were perfectly placed. That cluster of sliders just off the plate and below the zone were killers, pitches that look like strikes out of the hand, but are next to impossible to actually do damage against:
Shane Bieber, Wicked 85mph Slider.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 14, 2022
4th K pic.twitter.com/EwchpWbk4K
Bieber notably struck out Aaron Judge all three times they faced each other, twice on sliders down and once on a called strike with a fastball, with Judge finishing with four total strikeouts. It’s unfair to label Judge as slumping, while it’s also fine to note that he’s just had a pair of bad games, uncorking a couple of ugly swings on bad pitches, and missing a couple of pitches that he would’ve driven a month ago. Most concerning overall is the struggle this lineup faces when their top man has an off day.
Giancarlo Stanton was able to nick Bieber for his two-run homer to the short porch in the first inning, but otherwise, Bieber did a quality job, turning the ball over to Trevor Stephan with two on and two out in the sixth.
Stephan, a former Yankee farmhand, did tremendous work himself, getting out of the jam by striking out Matt Carpenter and then striking out the side in the seventh. Stephan’s put-away splitter to Carpenter in particular was nasty:
Trevor Stephan, Nasty 90mph Splitter. ✌️ pic.twitter.com/YhSWnHTIGC— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 14, 2022
The Stephan-Carpenter at-bat was this game in a nutshell. It’s not fair to say the Yankee offense went completely silent; they managed a fistful of hard hits against Bieber and company, drew their walks, and had spots to drive runners in and take control. But in those spots, Cleveland’s pitching just executed better. This was one of those chances, with a good lefty hitter with a chance to drive in runs against a righty, but Stephan was just flat-out better, if for one pitch.
The story continued from there. The Yankees loaded the bases on walks from James Karinchak in the eighth, but Emmanuel Clase came on and bested Kyle Higashioka with the game on the line, inducing a soft liner that José Ramírez corralled to close the inning. The Yankees put a runner on in each of the ninth and tenth, but Clase stranded each.
In truth, this was a very evenly matched game. For as quiet as the Yankee offense was for much of the day, so too was Cleveland’s. Nestor Cortes had the Guardians off balance for most of his five innings, with Cleveland generating almost exclusively weak contact off the lefty. Cortes’ only big mistake was a middle-middle fastball to Amed Rosario, which the shortstop crushed for a game-tying home run in the fifth.
Aaron Boone acted with appropriate aggression in managing his bullpen, flitting between Lou Trivino, Jonathan Losiaiga, Wandy Peralta, and Clay Holmes. Even with the Yankee relief corps banged up, that quartet has the potential to silence any lineup, and they did their job today, combining for four hitless innings with five strikeouts.
At the end of the day, the game came down to tale of two 37’s. Stay with me: Higashioka’s liner against Clase in the eighth goes for a hit 37 percent of the time, per Statcast. Oscar González’s go-ahead bloop single in the tenth also goes for a hit 37 percent of the time. Higashioka’s batted ball found Ramírez’s glove and stranded three runners, while González’s found grass and won the game, scoring Ramírez (who himself reached on a bloop that had a nine percent hit probability.)
These are the margins that decide playoff games that are this tight. Both sides did great work in shutting down the opposing lineup, racking up whiffs and weak contact. On this day, more of Cleveland’s flares went for hits and runs than the Yankees’. C’est la vie.
The broader upshot is that the balance in this series has obviously shifted. The Yankees were close to taking a commanding lead, but now, they face a three-game series where they’ll play two of those games on the road. Moreover, they saw all four of their top relievers go, and had a potential Game 5 starter chip in in relief. The saving grace is that Cleveland leaned on their top relievers as well, with all of Stephan, Karinchak, and Clase throwing at least 21 pitches.
But the Yankees have fired their top two starters and used almost all of their best relief arms twice in this series, only to emerge with a mere split, one that leaves them without home-field advantage. It’s all due to an offense that just couldn’t quite do enough to support a pitching staff that has largely shoved so far. The onus is now on Luis Severino in Game 3, to put the Yankees back in command in this ALDS.