CLEVELAND – Didi Gregorius must have felt like he walked into an impossible situation when he first reported to the Yankees in 2015. He wasn't just playing shortstop. He was replacing Derek Jeter, the most beloved Yankee of his time and among the most revered big-league players over the past half-century.
Jeter spent 20 years playing in the Bronx. He was a fixture at the position, like an old chair in George Steinbrenner's office. He was their captain and the conscience of the organization. Even ardent Yankee haters had a place in their hearts for Jeter, who in two years likely will be the first player in history voted unanimously into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Nobody replaces Derek Jeter.
Didi Gregorius was nobody.
Gregorius hit homers in the first and third innings Wednesday to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead and help them to a 5-2 victory over the Indians at Progressive Field, clinching the American League Divisional Series in five games. New York rallied for three straight wins after dropping the first two games of the series.
The Yanks will play the Astros in the American League Championship starting Friday night in Houston.
"As a kid, you always want to play in a big situation," Gregorius said. "I wanted to be a major league player when I was growing up. Then, I worked for it. Now that I'm here, this is unbelievable."
The most interesting thing about him was that he was born in the Netherlands. He played eight games in Cincinnati in 2012 and batted .240 with 13 homers in 183 games over two seasons with Arizona. People struggled to with his name at the beginning. Heaven knows how many times I referred to him as Didi Gregorio, tapping into my childhood admiration for the great Ernie D.
Yankees fans have come to appreciate Gregorius in the past two years, first for a spectacular glove that made them forget about Jeter in the field and later for a bat that was responsible for a .283 batting average and 45 homers over the past two seasons. He took his own place in Bronx Bombers' lore on Wednesday night.
"It was just after (Jeter) played his long and successful career here in New York," Gregorius said about arriving in a trade. "The first day, I was really comfortable with all these guys. I got a warm welcome from everybody. It's been an awesome run with these guys."
As for Cleveland, the run is over.
Oh, the poor Indians.
Cleveland won 102 games this season and had the best record in the AL. They rattled off a record 22 straight victories in August and September and were 33-4 over their final 37 games. Many thought this would be the year for the Tribe, finally, before the Yanks pushed them to the limit with two wins in the Bronx drilled them again at home.
Most remarkable was the Yankees won while getting almost nothing from their young superstar, Aaron Judge. The favorite for AL Rookie of the Year struck out 16 times, a record for any postseason series, in the five games. He whiffed four times Wednesday, looked lost doing so, and was 1 for 20 in the series.
Clevelanders were terrified about the prospects of losing Wednesday and seeing another opportunity slip away, a feeling Buffalo knows all too well. You knew what was going through the minds of our Lake Erie cousins in joints like the Harry Buffalo and the Winking Lizard: Pray for the best and brace for the worst.
With the pressure was cranked up considerably more on the Tribe than the young, up-and-coming Yankees, the Indians took some comfort in home teams going 14-3 in the postseason. They had not lost three straight since the first week of August. But they also had lost five straight when given a chance to clinch, going back to the World Series last year.
It was a heck of a boulder to push up the hill. And with dark clouds hanging over Cleveland after an afternoon of steady rain, gloom awaited doom.
Corey Kluber, the presumptive Cy Young Award winner in the AL, was dreadful in his second straight start, and the Tribe never recovered. Since '97, when they were in a position to end a postseason series, they were 4-16. They had not lost two straight games in more than six weeks before the Yanks beat them twice this week. Add another loss to both.
Gregorius, batting third, hit a solo shot in his first at-bat and hammered a second pitch into the right-field seats with Brett Gardner aboard in the third. He finished with three hits. If that wasn't enough, he also turned a double play by himself to end the fifth inning after Cleveland scratched out two runs and had two runners on base.
Indians fans, uptight long before the game, prepared for their fate after Gregorius hit his second homer. Progressive Field, as you might expect, sounded like Cleveland was watching a Browns' preseason game. In a year in which it seemed nothing could go wrong, everything did during a three-game meltdown against the Yanks.
The worst unfolded in the ninth on Gardner's RBI single on the 12th pitch of his at-bat before the Yanks added another run when Francisco Lindor failed to handle Jason Kipnis' lazy throw from the outfield. Cleveland's season ended with barely a whimper, like many others.
"Nobody wanted the season to come to an end," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "It doesn't wind down. It comes to a crashing halt. Nobody, myself included, was ready for it to be over."
The Indians were heavy favorites going into the series. They were the better team during the regular season, had more playoff experience and, supposedly, a deeper pitching staff.
Kluber was the guy Cleveland pointed toward most when counting up reason for optimism. He pitched 6 1/3 innings and allowed nine earned runs during his two postseason starts. He was so far removed from his dominance in the regular season and you had to wonder whether he was completely healthy.
He lasted only 3 2/3 innings Wednesday, surrendered three earned runs and was outpitched for the second time by CC Sabathia. The Yanks 37-year-old lefty had a 1-0 lead before the Indians stepped to the plate.
"It's disappointing," Francona said. "We felt good about ourselves. We did some things that were uncharacteristic of our team."
Sabathia retired the first nine batters and 12 of the first 13, striking out nine, finding a groove the Yankees needed from their veteran starter in a big game. He kept the Indians off balance and quieted their crowd in a masterful performance before Cleveland banged out four singles off him the fifth.
The Yanks weren't looking for much more than what Sabathia provided before turning to their bullpen over the final 4 2/3 innings. The key was getting the lead. With two swings, Gregorius provided it.
"Just a huge lift," Yankees skipper Joe Girardi said. "To give us a lead and then give us a 3-0 lead was even bigger. Didi had an incredible night. That's the great thing about this team. There are so many players that can do it. Tonight, it was Didi."