CLEVELAND -- The phone rang in the visitors’ bullpen during the ninth inning on Saturday evening as Wandy Peralta neared the end of his line, a two-run Yankees lead appearing more in jeopardy with each fatigued pitch. The voice crackled through the earpiece, identifying Clarke Schmidt as the choice to warm up. No one was more surprised than Clay Holmes.
Though Holmes said he was available to take the ball, manager Aaron Boone bypassed the veteran in favor of Schmidt, handing the rookie the most challenging assignment of his young career. One pitch away from nailing down a commanding lead in this American League Division Series, it is now the Yankees who face elimination.
Oscar Gonzalez ripped a two-out, two-strike single into center field, sparking a delirious celebration near first base and handing the Yankees a heartbreaking 6-5, walk-off loss to the Guardians in Saturday’s ALDS Game 3 at Progressive Field. Cleveland now leads the best-of-five ALDS, two games to one.
“My name was called, and that’s all I focused on,” Schmidt said. “I felt like I made some quality pitches throughout the inning. They put some quality swings out there. They’re a gritty bunch.”
The stunning defeat is unprecedented in Yankees history. The franchise had been 167-0 in the postseason when leading by two or more runs entering the ninth inning, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Entering this postseason, the winner of Game 3 in a best-of-five postseason series tied at 1-1 has gone on to win the series 41 of 57 times (72%).
“It was a gut-wrenching ending, but we’ve got to get over it,” Boone said. “Now we’re obviously up against it, but I still love our chances. We’ve got Gerrit [Cole] going tomorrow. We’ve got to take care of business and try and get back to New York.”
Boone has acknowledged that this injury-marred version of the Yankees' bullpen lacks the automatic, dominant options of years past. Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” no longer accompanies Mariano Rivera across the outfield grass, nor can Boone call upon Aroldis Chapman or Zack Britton, the saves leaders during his managerial tenure.
The club leader in games finished during the regular season was Holmes (32), a first-time All-Star who notched 20 saves. Holmes sustained a right shoulder strain during a Sept. 26 appearance at Toronto, and the Yanks have guarded him carefully; they kept him out of live batting practice for an Oct. 10 workout day, allowing him to record two outs in ALDS Game 1.
Holmes pitched in Friday’s Game 2 loss to Cleveland, tossing 16 pitches; Boone said he would not pitch back-to-back days, citing “soreness” and leaving him only for an emergency. That was not communicated to Holmes, who watched from the bullpen as Schmidt tried to extinguish flames Holmes felt ready to fight.
“I prepared today to do my job,” Holmes said. “Sometimes those decisions aren’t mine. I felt like I was available to pitch. Whenever my name is called, I’m ready to go out there and give it everything I’ve got. They asked and I said I was good to go if needed. That’s how the conversation was. Those decisions aren’t mine, but I was prepared to pitch.”
The situation reminds of a communication issue within the Yankees’ clubhouse earlier this season, when Luis Severino was blindsided by an assignment to the 60-day injured list. Severino argued vehemently, insisting he’d be ready to pitch long before that date. When general manager Brian Cashman attempted to explain the move, Severino looked away.
Asked about Holmes’ absence, Severino said: “He’s our closer. Of course I was surprised. I don’t know if he was down. There shouldn’t be people down in the playoffs. That’s something that you guys need to ask Boone or [pitching coach Matt] Blake to see what was going on.”
Up until the ninth, the Yankees were on track to stand one victory away from meeting the Astros in the AL Championship Series. Severino was on the ropes early, as Josh Naylor stroked a run-scoring single past shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa in a 31-pitch first inning. The Yankees had bullpen activity in a 25-pitch second inning, when Severino allowed three hits, including Steven Kwan’s RBI single.
Oswaldo Cabrera gave New York the lead in the fifth with a two-run shot off McKenzie.
Cleveland sliced the deficit in the sixth, as Will Brennan greeted Lou Trivino with a pinch-hit RBI single. Harrison Bader got that run back in the seventh, homering to the left-field bleachers off Sam Hentges. Bader’s homer was the first run allowed by a Cleveland reliever this postseason, but it would be Boone’s bullpen use that landed under the microscope.
“This team has fought hard all year,” Holmes said. “It’s not a fun one to not go your way, but I believe in the guys in this locker room. Our backs are against the wall, but I believe in the fight of these guys in this room.”