Why the Indians beat the Yankees

The Cleveland Indians were largely seen, at least through the eyes of the passionate defenders of the small market, as the underdog in this year’s ALDS. That the Indians had won more games was seen as irrelevant; after all, they had lost all six of their games with the Yankees this season. And even in obvious victory the series was less won than lost, with the narrative falling on the forthcoming wrath of George Steinbrenner rather than the team that excited it. Forget the payrolls and the relative prestige of the franchises, the star power and owner ultimatums, and let’s concentrate on what happened on the field between two very good baseball teams.

The New York Yankees came into the postseason a hot team; they had gone a league-best 51-25 in the second half of the season thanks mostly to a much-improved starting rotation. That modest improvement was more than enough help to an offense that needed little. The addition of talented youngsters Phillip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain put the finishing touches on a 94-win season.

The Cleveland Indians likewise finished well, running past the Detroit Tigers in August and September to win the AL Central. The Indians relied on their strong starting staff to keep afloat during an post-Break offensive drought; when the team started to score runs again, the pitching drove the Indians to 96 wins and their first playoff appearance in six years.

The opening game of the series was influenced mostly by Bruce Froemming’s miniscule strike zone, which conveniently expanded after the game was no longer in doubt. Chien-Ming Wang didn’t make it through five innings, and C.C. Sabathia barely made it through the fifth. Wang’s sinker wasn’t sinking, and those pitches on the periphery of the plate weren’t being called strikes. The Indians turned a tense 4-3 contest into a blowout after chasing Wang and pummeling his successor, Ross Ohlendorf.

Game two featured the only two quality starts of the series. Fausto Carmona dominated, pitching nine innings and allowed just three hits. Andy Pettitte had to pitch differently keeping the Indians off balance, and defusing rally after rally. Midges, prematurely hatched by the unseasonably warm weather, emerged from Lake Erie late in regulation, bugging players on both sides, most notably Joba Chamberlain, whose two wild pitches plated the tying run. Travis Hafner’s bases-loaded single in the 11th ended a string of 16 fruitless at-bats with RISP.

In Games three and four, the Yankees were again forced to pull their starters early. Roger Clemens left Game Three in the third inning with a hamstring injury; Phillip Hughes filled in admirably, buying the Yankees enough time to get to Indians starter Jake Westbrook in the fifth and sixth innings. Armed with a five-run lead, Chamberlain and Rivera closed out the game.

Chien-Ming Wang made his second start of the series on short rest, and he again was unable to keep his sinker down in the strike zone. He was pulled in the second inning, but this time the Indians’ pitching held up. Starter Paul Byrd and his mystical array of junk gave the Indians five innings, and the bullpen finished the game, with closer Joe Borowski walking the tightrope in the ninth.

As a team, the Indians did several things well:

Their relief pitching was outstanding, allowing just two earned runs in the series, and striking out 15 in 14 innings pitched. Rafael Perez pitched six of those innings, going multiple-inning stints in all three of his appearances. He was a key tactical weapon against the Yankees’ lefty-heavy lineup.

Indians hitters collected 20 walks, doing to Yankee pitchers what their offense usually does to opposing pitchers. More to the point, those walks were the end result of the hitters being patient against struggling pitchers. Perhaps those pitchers were going to struggle anyway, but the Indians didn’t give them any breaks.

Among the many outstanding individual performances:

Carmona (9.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 5 SO): pitched nine innings (two of which involved dealing with midges) of three-hit ball in game two. On his final pitch, he struck out Alex Rodriguez on a mid-90s sinker.

Kenny Lofton (16 AB, .375/.444/.438) drove in four runs in game one, all with two outs. Jhonny Peralta (15 AB, .467/.579/.667) barely missed a home run in game two, and had three hits in game four. Grady Sizemore (16 AB, .375/.524/.688) seemed to be in the middle of everything, from scoring on Joba Chamberlain’s wild pitch in Game 2, to leading off Game 4 with a home run.

In addition to the regulars producing, the Indians got production from their bench. Trot Nixon, who was inserted into the Game 3 lineup for his ability to hit Roger Clemens, hit a home run off the Rocket in his first at-bat. Jason Michaels doubled in his only at-bat of the series. And Kelly Shoppach, who was in game four’s lineup because he was Paul Byrd’s personal catcher, went 2-for-3 with a double.

The biggest decision Indians manager Eric Wedge made in this series was who to pitch in Game 4: CC Sabathia (on three days’ rest), or Paul Byrd, who had gotten lit up in his only game against the Yankees this season. Byrd looked even worse when you look at his platoon splits (LHB hit .322/.345/.459 against him in 2007), given the leftie-heavy lineup the Yankees put out to face him. But the Indians had the lead in the series, and Sabathia had pitched on short rest just one other time in his career (September 2001), and that start involved a strict pitch count. The decision paid off: Byrd went five innings, and both C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona will be available and well rested for the ALCS.

In my series preview, I noted four things the Indians needed to do to beat the Yankees: limit walks, have the better starting pitching, utilize their bullpen whenever possible, and use the depth of the lineup to get to the Yankees’ starters. In other words, play from in front. The Indians followed this formula in two of their wins, and Fausto Carmona’s great performance allowed them to stick around long enough to tie and eventually win a third.

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