CLEVELAND -- The Indians are one win away from a chance to play for the American League pennant, but it has become abundantly clear that life is about to get more challenging than it was during the 33-4 funfest that marked the end of their regular season.
The Indians' cleanup man and resident slugger is suddenly questionable with an ankle injury. Their seemingly untouchable ace is fresh off his biggest clunker this season. And even if they win one of the next three games to eliminate the New York Yankees -- a very likely scenario -- the Houston Astros are crushing the Boston Red Sox in a way that would make them a colossal challenge in the next round.
When the Indians arrive at the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, hit the trainers' room for treatment and settle in at the cribbage board with manager Terry Francona before Game 3 of the AL Division Series, they won't be paying much attention to the October white noise. What outsiders might regard as a diminished state, they view as an opportunity to make a statement.
It took the Indians 13 innings and 5 hours, 8 minutes to beat the Yankees on Friday, and their resilience spoke volumes. When Yan Gomes’ capped a 10-pitch at-bat against Dellin Betances and stroked a single down the third-base line to give Cleveland a 9-8 victory, Progressive Field shook just the way it had when Rajai Davis took Aroldis Chapman deep in Game 7 of the World Series last October.
And the Indians players who were around a year ago could be excused for having flashbacks: With an ability to overcome obstacles and gut punches, this 2017 Tribe team has a lot in common with the 2016 version.
The Indians could have crumbled when designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion rolled his ankle on a baserunning mishap in the first inning and lay writhing on the ground in agony. They could have felt discombobulated when sure-thing starter Corey Kluber logged his worst outing of the season at precisely the wrong time. After allowing a total of four earned runs in six starts during a 5-0, 0.84 September, Kluber got torched for six runs in 2⅔ innings by Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks and the Yankees.
But the Indians dug deep and won a game they seemingly had no right to win. They won a bunch of games like this last October, when they survived a decimating run of injuries to the pitching staff and exhibited what closer Cody Allen referred to as "true belief -- not that fake stuff that guys talk about."
At least one of the principals on Friday considered it the best game he has ever taken part in:
"No. 1. Absolutely. No doubt," said outfielder Jay Bruce. "That was an amazing game. There are no words, honestly. To be down to a team like that and put the at-bats together and push the runs across? Honestly, I'm speechless."
Nevertheless, Bruce easily summoned the words to describe what it felt like when he launched an opposite-field solo homer off David Robertson in the eighth inning to finally pull the Indians even at 8-8.
"I'm pretty boring when I'm running the bases most of the time," Bruce said. "But emotion kind of overtook me when I rounded second base and saw the guys in the dugout, because you understood at that moment what it took to get back in the game and have an opportunity to win.
"I said from that time, 'We've done too much. We've come too far to win the game against a team like [the Yankees] that has so much talent and firepower in the pen. We were supposed to win. I think that's the bottom line."
The first two days of this series were a testament to the emotional swings that mark the postseason. Trevor Bauer, a seemingly risky choice to start Game 1, dominated the Yankees from the first pitch. And Kluber, who barely gave opponents a sniff while seizing the Cy Young Award from Chris Sale's grip in September, looked out of sorts from the first inning. Of Kluber's 76 pitches, an uncharacteristically low 45 were strikes.
"There are days when you don't feel good but you go out there and kind of manage it and find a way to get through it," Kluber said. "I just didn't have good command tonight. Didn't execute pitches. I threw way too many balls, and it seemed like when I did throw strikes, they were right over the heart of the plate."
If Kluber's cameo was confounding, Encarnacion's injury could have been emotionally devastating. Beyond his team-high 38 homers, 107 RBIs and .377 on base percentage, he's a popular presence in the clubhouse and a particular favorite of the team's young double-play combo, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. There were some anxious and disquieting moments after Encarnacion jammed his ankle and bent it in an unnatural way to try to avoid being doubled off second.
Francona, whose uncanny sense of crisis management stems from his intimate knowledge of his players' strengths, sought out Lindor to bolster his teammates' spirits after Encarnacion's injury threatened to suck the life out of the dugout.
"I told him, 'Hey, we can't act like we got hit in the stomach and got the wind knocked out of us,'" Francona said. "I said, 'Keep them going.' And he certainly does that. He's wise beyond his years."
A series of pivotal moments added up to one gargantuan comeback. Lindor provided the biggest moment when he drove a Chad Green slider off the right-field foul pole to join Jim Thome, Albert Belle and Elmer Smith -- of the 1920 Tribe -- as the only Cleveland players with postseason grand slams.
"As soon as I hit it, I knew it had a chance of going out," Lindor said. "After a couple of steps, I was like, 'No, don't go foul, please. Just stay fair.' I started blowing on it a little bit."
Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, Joe Smith, Allen and Josh Tomlin combined for 8⅔ innings of shutout relief to give the Indians a chance to come back. And Gomes was a two-way hero. After third baseman Erik Gonzalez made a potentially crucial throwing error, Gomes erased the mistake by picking pinch runner Ronald Torreyes off second base. And Gomes' game-winning at-bat against Betances was a monument to focus and tenacity.
As the ball rattled around the left-field corner and Austin Jackson touched home plate to make it 9-8, the Indians streamed onto the field and celebrated something greater than the final score. If they're able to break their 69-year drought and go on the finish the job and win the World Series, they might reflect upon this game as a signature achievement in their season.
"I'm not good at ranking," Francona said. "But it was an honor to be a part of that game."
And as the 37,681 fans at Progressive Field on Friday will attest, it was a joy to watch.