This is starting to have the feel, on a smaller level, of the mid-to-late 1990s, when the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians were really good and really charismatic and played some really good, really memorable games. There were stars all over the field, the stands were filled in both ballparks and the atmosphere was supercharged. It was the Core Four Yankees at their youthful best against a devastating offense from Cleveland.
Maybe this year is a renaissance; maybe it's the beginning of another rivalry between two teams that have built -- or are building -- something special that will last for several years. We can only hope that's the case.
Here are five questions:
What is the Indians' thinking behind starting Corey Kluber in Game 2, not Game 1?
Kluber was the best pitcher in the game after May, and he had a 5-0 record with a 0.84 ERA in five starts in September, but by starting Trevor Bauer in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, the Indians will have Kluber available to pitch Game 5. If the Indians can win the series in four games, they will have Kluber on full rest for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
Indians manager Terry Francona acknowledges that it might be "putting the cart before the horse," but this switch could pay off if the Indians can win Game 1 of the ALDS.
This move also shows the faith the Indians have in Bauer, not just as a pitcher, but as a man. He went 17-9 with a 4.19 ERA this year, averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings. In the second half of the season, he went 10-2 with a 3.01 ERA. And in two starts against the Yankees this year, he allowed two earned runs in 13 innings.
Bauer's improvement as a pitcher corresponds directly to his maturation as a person. Four years ago, he wasn't nearly as comfortable in the clubhouse environment and with people as he is now. He is smart and funny and personable, and it shows in all that he does. He has grown as a person and as a pitcher, and now he has a chance to give his team has an enormous boost if he can win Game 1.
How good is the Yankees' bullpen?
In the wild-card game against the Minnesota Twins, Yankees starter Luis Severino got only one out, and the Yankees still won. It was the third time in major league history -- and the first time since 1925 -- that a starting pitcher got just one out in an elimination game and his team still won. The Yankees won because their spectacular bullpen rescued Severino by striking out 13, tying the record for most strikeouts by relievers in a nine-inning postseason game. But it wasn't just the 13 K's, it's how they got them.
Chad Green, who averaged 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings this year, entered the game in the first inning and blew away two hitters to keep the score 3-0. He has closer's stuff, and he was working in the first inning. He was followed by David Robertson, who essentially is a closer. He threw 52 pitches (a career high) over 3⅓ innings as the Yankees took the lead for good.
Then there was Tommy Kahnle, who also has closer's stuff. He brought the game to closer Aroldis Chapman, who struck out three in the ninth. Thirteen strikeouts, and Dellin Betances didn't even pitch. Betances has been a strikeout machine for four years. The Yankees need to get him back to his former brilliance if they are to beat the Indians.
How good is the Indians' bullpen?
It is as good as the Yankees' pen. The Tribe's bullpen has a 2.89 ERA, lowest in the major leagues. It has thrown the fewest innings (489⅓) in the majors, which implies that it might be fresher than other bullpens, and has recorded 548 strikeouts. Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Mike Clevinger, Danny Salazar, Bryan Shaw, Tyler Olson, Zach McAllister, Nick Goody and Dan Otero -- nine relievers -- all deserve a spot on the Indians' postseason roster. But this bullpen is so deep, a really good pitcher might not be active for this series.
Miller is healthy after a knee injury; he was the Indians' secret weapon in the postseason last year. He could be dominant in any inning or situation. Clevinger, an excellent starting pitcher down the stretch, gives Francona another option in long and/or middle relief. This promises to be a tremendous battle of the bullpens.
Yes. All rise. Another chapter of the Aaron Judge story was written in the AL wild-card game. He rose when the Yankees needed someone to carry the team in the first half of the season. In a totally different dynamic, he rose when the Home Run Derby needed another new star. He rose in September, after a horrendous 44-game slump, to win AL Player of the Month and help take the Yankees to the playoffs. And then, in his first playoff game, he rose to the occasion again, reaching base three times, including with a two-run homer that just tore a hole in the sky.
Obviously, there is something special about this kid, and we see more and more of it every day. Plus, he has lots of help in the lineup, starting with Gary Sanchez. Didi Gregorius saved the wild-card game with a three-run homer in the first inning. The Yankees started a 21-homer guy in the leadoff spot (Brett Gardner) and a 27-homer guy in the No. 9 spot (Todd Frazier). There is thunder all through the lineup, led by Judge.
How much better is Cleveland's offense now as compared to this time last year?
It is so much better.
Designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion has more RBIs over the past six seasons than any other player, and he is the only player with 30 or more homers in each of the past six seasons. He wasn't with the Indians last year; their cleanup hitter in Game 7 of the World Series was Mike Napoli, who struggled down the stretch last season and in the postseason.
Jay Bruce wasn't with the Indians last season, either; but they went 43-9 after he was acquired this year.
Francisco Lindor hit third in the order in the postseason last year, and even though he was productive, the Indians are better served with him leading off and with Jose Ramirez (most extra-base hits in the AL this year) hitting third.
Michael Brantley, who didn't play in the postseason last season because of injuries, is active for this series. He has an ankle injury that might limit him only to pinch-hitting in this series, but he provides a boost.
Prediction: Indians in five.