Yankees Pregame Notebook: Will Game 168 bring a comeback or a vacation?
CLEVELAND - The time has come: Game 5 of the American League Division Series. The Yankees have rallied back from 0-2 down to force this winner-take-all game, and in just a few hours, one will be headed to an ALCS date with the Astros while the other will be headed home until February.
The momentum seems to be all on the Yankees' side, and all in the hands of starter CC Sabathia, who may be perfectly tailored to lead these mostly Baby Bombers into their biggest game ever.
"Momentum a lot of times depends on your starting pitching, and I thought CC threw a pretty good game here the last time," Girardi said. "And CC's used to these big moments, so we feel good about him on the mound. He's had the experience in these types of games, and he doesn't change - I think he embraces them. When he signs up for a season, this is what he signs up for, these type of games. And I think that's why we all have so much confidence in him; we've seen him do it so many times."
The Yankees have also won three straight elimination games, namely the Wild Card Game and ALDS Games 3 and 4, but in the other dugout is an Indians team that has lost five straight games where they had a chance to eliminate an opponent, stretching back to Game 5 of the 2016 World Series - so the confidence ball seems to be in the Yankees' court, too.
"I really do believe you gain confidence (in those spots)," Girardi said. "I mean, that's my hope, because we've been in three of them, and we've been in some spots. The first one we were in, we were down 3-0 before you could really think about what was going on, and we'd replaced our starter. So, I think it should give them confidence, and I think they feel good about themselves."
It was known Tuesday that the Yankees lineup that will face Corey Kluber was mostly set, the DH spot the only mystery. Jacoby Ellsbury, who had that spot in Game 2 against Kluber, was the choice, and with the DH tandem of Ellsbury and Chase Headley batting .000 collectively this postseason, the skipper says the decision was based on what could happen if that average rises.
"We just kind of talked about it as a staff and we continued to go back that Jacoby has probably had the best at-bats off of him and offers us the most speed of the three choices," Girardi said. "You know Kluber's history - a lot of people don't have success off him - so we looked at who's had the most, and the speed option, and that's why we went with Jake."
That means, of course, that Matt Holliday, who was signed this season to be the primary DH, remains (for now) without a postseason plate appearance. That's certainly tough, Girardi noted, and he knows because he's been there himself.
"I think he's handled this about as well as you can," Girardi said of Holliday. "It's not easy. I've been there, where Jorgie (Posada) and I had the guys that we each caught; I wanted to be in there every day and Georgie wanted to be in there every day, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the good of the team. It's harder watching than playing, because when you're playing you feel like you're into the game and you can change the game, but he's been very professional and he's trying to stay ready."
On the other side, the Indians' lineup is "whole" once again with the return of their DH, Edwin Encarnacion, who left Game 2 after injuring his ankle and missed Games 3 and 4. That said, however, Girardi knows there are also right others that Sabathia and the pitchers have to worry about, too.
"Obviously, he changes their lineup, and we know how dangerous he is; he's probably been one of the best RBI guys in our league the last few years, and we've seen him do it to us," Girardi said. "But, the people in front of him and behind him are dangerous, too, so, we're going to approach him the same way we did in Games 1 and 2: carefully. You've got to make your pitches on him just like anybody else."
There's not much more to say other than this: tonight will be a battle for the ages, but win or lose, Girardi is proud of what his team has shown in just getting to this point.
"There's a lot to be proud of the last three games, but I'm proud of the way they've battled back all year, he said. "This team has never stopped fighting and never stopped believing. I think that's the mark of a very good team. They know how to persevere and continue to grind out everything, whether it's an at-bat or it's on the other side, you're facing a batter, how you grind it out. I think the future's very bright."
Here are a few more quotes from the skipper prior to the ALDS finale:
-Two years ago, Sabathia chose to leave the team on the eve of the playoffs to check into alcohol rehab, and that to Girardi may be CC's watershed moment as both a Yankee and as a man: "Of all the things that I've ever seen CC do from afar, and for how much you admired what he did for us, I admired that moment more than any because he put his family first and his life in front of the game.
Sometimes, we get really caught up in our jobs and love what we do, and we forget what the most important thing is, and CC did not. He knew his health and his family were more important than the game of baseball. And as much as it probably killed him inside, he knew he had to make a choice. I probably admire him more for that than anything he's ever done on the field."
-Here's Joe's answer when asked about the importance of advance scouting in a series like this: "I think it's really important. I think the job that Larry Rothschild does, preparing our pitchers, this guy watches countless hours of video. I mean, so many hours that I'm amazed. I watch a lot of video, but nothing like Larry, and lives and dies with every pitch. He does a tremendous job of preparing. Our advance scouts went out and probably watched Cleveland for a month. Gave us information that was really helpful. It's all part of it. You get to the middle of September, and all of a sudden you're sending ten groups out, eight groups out to go watch teams and you're not sure who you're going to face, and they're there for a month following a team and it's a lot of work they put in. We're very appreciative."
-His team is ready, but how does Girardi personally feel today? "I think what you're feeling is there are a million things going through your mind all the time. And they do a little bit during the regular season when you get in some series that are really pivotal, but not like these games. And you're trying to go over everything, and what you realize is you've seen this team for four days in a row, and you saw them for seven games in August. So there's not really a whole lot that we haven't uncovered, but you're still thinking about every situation that can possibly come up. So how do I feel? I feel my mind is on the game more than it ever is. That's how you feel. That's the difference."
-Last word is this, Girardi's answer when further asked about the future of the franchise: "I think it's really bright. When you look at the youth, and the talent of the youth that is here now, the youth that is really close and then the youth that might be a year or two away, I think it is extremely bright. I think the Yankees are set up for a really good run, and there's a lot of things that have to go into that. Health has to play an important role. But you look at the impact players that are youthful now that we already have, that's big. And you're not talking about 7, 8, 9 hitters. You're talking about middle of the order hitters that are big and can be extremely productive. So I think it's really bright."