There was a period when it looked like a very real possibility that the 2020 MLB season would be cancelled, as the owners refused to negotiate in good faith with the players union before unilaterally enforcing the 60-game COVID season. As part of the agreement, 16 teams would play in an unprecedented three-game Wild Card Series to open the playoffs, with seeding determined by overall record and the eight winners advancing to the Division Series.
Thus the Yankees, owners of the second-best record in the AL East, squared off against Cleveland, owners of the second-best record in the AL Central, to determine who would face the winner of the Rays-Blue Jays series in the ALDS. The full set would be played on the road at an empty Progressive Field, as New York finished two games worse than Cleveland.
Final Score: Yankees 10, Cleveland 9
Game MVP: Gio Urshela
The Yankees had to love their chances in Game 2, having comprehensively clobbered Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber for seven runs in the first five innings the night before while their ace Gerrit Cole humbled the opposing lineup to the tune of 13 strikeouts in seven innings to put themselves a win away from a trip to the ALDS. What’s more, they had Playoff Tanaka on the mound — the closest thing to a guaranteed postseason victory in the previous few seasons. However, the weather gods had other things in mind for that night.
With ominous rainstorms in the forecast for hours leading up to first pitch, the start of this game should have been delayed hours if not outright postponed to the next day. But MLB in their infinite wisdom insisted that a brief rain delay was all that was needed, charging full steam ahead with plans to finish the game before the night’s end out of fear of creating a logjam in an already-clogged postseason schedule.
And so, after 45 minutes of watching the skies darken and the storm clouds settle over Progressive Field, the league gave the OK for the game to start. Lo and behold, they couldn’t even complete an inning before a downpour forced both sides from the playing field to endure another interruption, this time of over an hour.
It was a truly bizarre decision to postpone first pitch until the exact arrival of the rain and stubbornly insist on starting — only to roll the tarp out 10 minutes later, thus burning both starting pitchers or forcing them to come out cold after getting hot and then going down for an extended period of time.
Attempting to pitch amidst sheets of rain, it was clear that Masahiro Tanaka was struggling to grip the baseball. Too many pitches found the heart of the plate and he was immediately punished, with César Hernández and José Ramírez lining back-to-back one out doubles to grab the early 1-0 just in time for the game to be delayed again.
Play would eventually resume, but it was quickly turning into a worst-case scenario for the Yankees with their star postseason pitcher on the mound hoping to avoid a Game 3. Tanaka came back out with a runner still on second and managed to induce a Carlos Santana flyout, but the pain was far from over in the frame. With two outs, he walked Franmil Reyes, setting up a two-run double by Josh Naylor and RBI single by Roberto Perez to put the Yankees in a 4-0 hole.
Giancarlo Stanton immediately responded in the top of the second, crushing a one-out solo shot to give him home runs in back-to-back games and re-inject some life into his teammates.
The blast also seemed to settle Tanaka down, as he would go on to pitch a scoreless second, third and fourth, the only baserunner coming via a leadoff walk to Ramírez in the third. Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco also bounced back, logging a one-two-three third, but the respite was short-lived. In the top of the fourth, he surrendered a leadoff single to Aaron Hicks followed by walks to Luke Voit and Stanton to load the bases without recording an out. This led Terry Francona to replace him with rising relief phenom James Karinchak — dominant in the 2020 season by striking out almost half the batters he faced.
He looked miles from the near-unhittable regular season version. Gio Urshela managed to work the count to 3-2, as it was clear that Karinchak was missing some of the feel for his normally lethal hammer curveball. Perhaps picking up on this, Urshela hunted a fastball in the full count, got it, and did not miss, crushing a grand slam deep into the empty seats in left to give the Yankees a 5-4 lead.
Karinchak would walk the next two batters he faced before getting yanked without recording an out, and from there, it looked like the Yankees might run away with the contest against a shell-shocked Cleveland outfit. Phil Maton did escape the inning unscathed leaving a pair stranded, but was punished for a leadoff Hicks walk and Voit double the next inning as Stanton plated the former with a sacrifice fly to make it 6-4 Yankees.
Just as the momentum appeared to favor the Yankees, Tanaka surrendered a fifth-inning leadoff double to Francisco Lindor, followed by a walk to Hernández, spoiling what was otherwise an admirable rebound from the nightmare first inning. Aaron Boone replaced him with Chad Green and instantly regretted his decision, as Green served up a two-run double to Ramírez to erase the Yankees’ hard-fought lead and return proceedings to a level contest.
The Yankees’ hitters showed a habit of responding immediately to Cleveland scoring, as Brett Gardner worked a leadoff walk against Triston McKenzie to open the sixth, allowing Gary Sánchez to snatch New York’s two-run lead back with an oppo-taco wall scraper to right.
Both Cleveland and the Yankees would strand a pair of runners in the next two half-innings, Zack Britton inducing a much-needed inning-ending double play to bail Green out while Nick Wittgren fanned Clint Frazier to end the top of the seventh.
Britton’s effectiveness would only extend two outs into the bottom of the seventh, as a pair of walks to Santana and Reyes led to his being replaced by Jonathan Loáisiga. Despite working the count to 1-2, he left a curveball to Jordan Luplow that caught a little too much plate, and a double to center field later, the score was once again knotted, 8-8.
The Yankees just couldn’t seem to stop undoing all their own hard work. Loáisiga issued back-to-back leadoff walks in the eighth, which led to a Hernández RBI single off Aroldis Chapman to give Cleveland their first lead since the fourth, 9-8.
This allowed Cleveland to bring in closer Brad Hand — owner of a 2.05 ERA and 1.37 FIP during the regular season — to try to secure the win in the top of the ninth. He would do no such thing. A leadoff walk by Stanton allowed the Yankees to replace him with the speedy pinch-runner Mike Tauchman, and after singles by Urshela and Gleyber Torres, New York had loaded the bases with no outs.
Gardner struck out, but a Sánchez sac fly tied the score at nine and allowed the Yankees to bring their team MVP to the plate with runners in scoring position — a situation in which DJ LeMahieu carried a .364 average during the regular season. He delivered with a groundball single up the middle that plated Urshela from second after centerfielder Delino DeShields slipped when fielding the ball.
Chapman locked down a scoreless bottom of the ninth with three strikeouts as the Yankees punched their tickets to the ALDS, capping off one of the most rollercoaster playoff games in recent memory.
Editor’s note: Thanks for following along with our entire series on the Yankees’ greatest playoff games of the past 25 years! Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll have a few “best of the rest” picks that just missed the cut but were extremely fun to watch as well.