There are must-win games, and there are must-win games. Heading into Game 3 of the ALDS in 2017, the Yankees were coming off a loss as heartbreaking as they come. It was do-or-die in Game 3, with Cleveland up two games to none. New York called on Masahiro Tanaka — the man who they signed in 2014 with playoff moments like this mind — and Cleveland went with their standout veteran, Carlos Carrasco.
With their backs against the wall, the Yanks needed a win if they wanted to play another day, and they had to do so against not only the defending American League champions, but a ballclub that set a modern record with 22 consecutive wins in late 2017. I had the privilege of attending this game, and it stands out as one of the best in my time as a baseball fan.
Final Score: Yankees 1, Cleveland 0
MVPs: Greg Bird and Masahiro Tanaka
Tanaka’s worst season in pinstripes came in 2017, after breaking onto the scene with a bang three years earlier, but you certainly wouldn’t guess it after watching this game. Carrasco, however, was in the midst of arguably the best of what has been a really solid career. These two studs delivered on the promise of this matchup, and then some, as this would be a stingy effort from both sides throughout.
Both righties had it rolling early on, as neither offense had anything to speak of in the first three innings, other than a few quickly-erased baserunners on either side. That was until the top of the fourth, when Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis got into a ball to right for a triple with one out. One of the sport’s premier players, José Ramírez, was now up with a run 90 feet away. Tanaka was able to keep his cool though, getting the star to strikeout on his signature diving splitter, and followed it by doing the exact same to Jay Bruce to end the inning.
Things remained quiet after that, as Tanaka and Carrasco carved up opposing hitters, save for a stranded single or walk here or there. Come the top of the sixth, Cleveland was threatening once again.
After Roberto Perez singled, one of Cleveland’s heroes from Game 2 was up at the plate. Francisco Lindor lifted a Tanaka pitch deep toward the scoreboard in right, Aaron Judge drifted back, took a little hop and gloved the ball in relatively nonchalant fashion:
In retrospect, it was a game-saving play that stole a homer from Lindor. Not everyone makes this stuff look as easy as No. 99.
As for their turn in the sixth, the Yankees started a rally of their own, loading the bases with two outs. But the visitors had someone lurking in their bullpen that few teams could compare to: Andrew Miller. The feared former Yankee was in the midst of some of the most dominant relief seasons in recent memory, posting a 1.72 ERA with 421 strikeouts in just 261 innings since the start of 2014. In the 2016 postseason, he gave a performance for the ages en route to capturing ALCS MVP honors, and helped reimagine how relievers can be used.
Miller was called upon to get out of the jam, and he did just that for manager Terry Francona, sending the game into the seventh knotted up at 0-0. Tanaka worked a 1-2-3 frame, and completed his much-needed seven-inning, three-hit scoreless effort.
Miller stayed on for the seventh, with second-year lefty Greg Bird due up. The first baseman was very much considered part of the generation of Baby Bombers alongside Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Luis Severino, and he quickly won fans when he clubbed 11 homers in just 46 games while recording a 137 wRC+ down the stretch in the Wild Card season of 2015.
Bird was a promising young player, but he had suffered a disappointing 2017 after missing all of the previous year due to shoulder surgery. So it wasn’t the ideal matchup for New York, especially considering that Miller had only coughed up one long ball to a lefty all year long. But they needed a spark.
Bird gave them an explosion:
Fans hadn’t been on their toes with high expectations, but I can say from experience that Bird’s moonshot blew the figurative roof off Yankee Stadium.
After a one-out walk in the eighth, Yankees skipper Joe Girardi called on Aroldis Chapman for the five-out save. It feels like a distant memory now, but he fanned each of the next batters on 103- and 102-mph heaters, respectively. Brett Gardner got into scoring position in the bottom half, but nothing came of it; the slim 1-0 lead entered the top of the ninth.
Chapman returned for the ninth, hoping to close the door. He started by striking out Lindor, but followed it with back-to-back singles from Kipnis and Ramírez. With Cleveland knocking on the door, Chapman stuck to his bread-and-butter, getting Bruce on a here-it-is fastball. Carlos Santana was their last hope, and he made a good swing on a 3-2 fastball. Chapman won the battle anyway, as Aaron Hicks camped under it in center and secured a season-saving Yankee win.
This was one of the most exhilarating Yankee games in recent memory, though I may be biased as someone lucky enough to be in attendance. Tanaka gave a lights-out performance, while a Baby Bomber delivered the crushing blow to one of the game’s great relievers.
It felt like a turning point for what was a remarkably fun team, and it propelled them to one of the few 0-2 comebacks in Division Series history. Although it did not eventually culminate in a championship, it did deliver a memorable night for Yankee fans in the Bronx.