5 keys to Game 5 between Guardians, Yankees

October 18th, 2022

Astros vs. Mariners gave us an 18-inning pitchers’ duel in the longest scoreless tie in postseason history. Phillies vs. Braves and Padres vs. Dodgers gave us two of the biggest upsets in the history of the MLB postseason.

That was all entertaining. But none of the above gave us a Game 5 in the Division Series round.

So thanks, Yanks and Guards. We needed one of these. And if we have to wait an extra day, well, so be it. 

It’s back to the Bronx for the AL East and AL Central champs, who have played a tight, tense and terrific ALDS that now comes down to a winner-take-all at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.

Postseason ticket information: Guardians | Yankees

“You know,” said Cleveland manager Terry Francona, “if you would have told me back in, I don't know, March that we just signed up to play Game 5 in New York, to go to the ALCS, I would have jogged to New York. I mean, this is -- I'm excited.”

Aren’t we all? Through four games, the Yankees’ and Guardians’ cumulative offensive output, which they come at from completely different angles, is 15 runs for the power-packed Yankees and 13 for the pesky young Guardians. It has been close, and it has been captivating.

Advancement to an ALCS that will begin in Houston on Wednesday night -- yes, Wednesday night, as in the day after Game 5 -- is on the line. Here are five keys that could decide the outcome.

1. The starters

The rainout that pushed Game 2 back a day initially eliminated the possibility of these clubs bringing back their Game 2 starters (Nestor Cortes for the Yankees, Shane Bieber for the Guards) on short rest for Game 5.

But then, there was another rainout! And so now, the Yankees are indeed going with Cortes on three days’ rest. And while the Guardians contemplated going with Bieber, who dealt with a shoulder issue in 2021 and would have pitched on short rest for the first time in his career, they stuck with Aaron Civale.

Cortes had a brilliant 2022, with a 2.44 ERA and 159 ERA+ in 158 1/3 innings. What was most impressive is that the former reliever blew past his previous career high in innings but looked no worse for the wear and tear. While he was far from perfect and wasn’t able to hold a 2-0 lead in his first postseason start against Cleveland in Game 2 (two runs on six hits with a homer, three walks and three strikeouts), it’s not as if he was completely rocked.

Make no mistake, though: Starting on three days’ rest is more challenging than we tend to make it out to be. In the Wild Card era (since 1995), those pitching on short rest between starts are 30-47 with a 4.59 ERA. Cortes technically started on three days’ rest in the regular season once before, in 2019, but that was following a relief outing (the start, for the record, didn’t go well, as he gave up four runs in 2 1/3 innings to the Tigers).

Civale had a really scattered year, interrupted by three trips to the injured list. His overall numbers aren’t pretty (4.92 ERA, 78 ERA+), and the Yankees contributed to that in a big way by scoring 10 runs off him in nine innings over two starts. Civale did finish the season on a solid note (3.27 ERA, .559 opponent OPS in four September/October starts), but, with a 40.4 opponent hard-hit rate, this is obviously a difficult assignment for him.

Here's an interesting factoid: Civale is set to become the first pitcher to make his postseason debut with a start in a winner-take-all since Marty Bystrom for the 1980 Phillies in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Astros (Bystrom pitched well in a no-decision, and the Phils went on to win).

2. The Guards’ rested relievers

Francona can afford to have a quick hook with his starter. And should the Guards grab an early lead, look for the skipper to be especially aggressive with a bullpen that was able to rest its best arms over the weekend. In Game 2 in New York, Cleveland got 1 1/3 innings (21 pitches) out of Trevor Stephan, two-thirds of an inning (29 pitches) out of James Karinchak and 2 1/3 innings (33 pitches) out of closer Emmanuel Clase. Those are the guys Francona trusts most in high-leverage spots, and none of them were used in Games 3 and 4.

So they’ll be ready, and Clase’s ability to give the Guards multiple innings of (often) ruthlessly efficient outs is a big weapon in this elimination effort.

All told, Cleveland’s relievers have allowed just two runs on nine hits with 34 strikeouts and eight walks in 25 2/3 innings this postseason.

3. Postponement a plus for the pinstripes?

It’s different with the Yankees’ bullpen, which has allowed five runs in 12 2/3 innings this series. But importantly, the Game 5 postponement bought a day of rest for Wandy Peralta, who has pitched every game this series and worked a combined 2 2/3 innings on Friday and Saturday. That’s a big plus, given Peralta’s importance to this injury-plagued ‘pen.

And of course, there’s also the Clay Holmes factor. Yankees manager Aaron Boone had said he preferred not to use Holmes, who has dealt with a shoulder issue, on back-to-back days. Now, because of the postponement, he doesn’t have to.

Given the on-paper upgrade from Jameson Taillon to Cortes as the starter and the rest for that prominent pair of relievers, it would seem fair to suggest the Yankees benefited more from the rainout than the Guardians.

4. Will the real rise?

With the notable exception of a 449-foot homer in Game 3 that Francona joked he’d pick up on his way home from the ballpark, Judge has been kept quiet by this Cleveland pitching staff.

In this ALDS, Judge is 2-for-16 with a walk and nine strikeouts. In his postseason career against Cleveland, he is 4-for-45 with two homers and 29 K’s. The Guards have done a good job of executing non-fastballs in the bottom of the zone and staying away from those middle-middle meatballs that Judge can pound to another county. It’s a big reason why this series is going to a fifth game.

While the Yankees have had some other bats step up -- none more notable than sudden home run hero Harrison “See You” Bader -- Judge’s presence looms large here, physically and figuratively.

In forcing a Game 5, the Yankees guaranteed Judge at least one more home date before hitting free agency. The man who broke the AL home run record was actually booed in the Bronx in Game 2. Will it be boos or bombs for Judge in Game 5?

5. Does experience matter?

The inexperience of the youngest team in the Majors simply has not been a factor in this season and in this postseason. The Guardians debuted 17 rookies this year and have put the rawest of rookies -- and , who had a combined 27 games played in the regular season -- in some big spots in this series. And yet, here they are, a win away from the ALCS.

But here’s the biggest test yet. The Guardians showed some rare defensive jitters in Game 1 under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium before looking more like themselves in the daylight in Game 2. Now, it’s an elimination effort against a Yankees lineup with loads more October experience and against a Yankees franchise that has a .609 winning percentage (fourth best all-time) in elimination games.

It's one last meeting for the Youngins and the Yanks, for the Bloopers and the Bombers. Here’s to the decisive Game 5 this special series deserves.