CLEVELAND — The good people of Northeast Ohio wouldn’t take this as a compliment, and in their defense, it probably isn’t intended as one.
But never, in this stellar ballpark’s 27-year history, has Progressive Field felt more like Yankee Stadium.
It can’t be merely the absence of a hostile crowd, because that didn’t stop the Yankees from stumbling all around the Eastern seaboard during this COVID-reduced 2020 season. Maybe, a little bit, supportive bubbled family members seated in the right-field suites helped.
Definitely, regardless, the Yankees immediately turned their road disadvantage on its head Tuesday night and vaporized the cloud of anxiety that hovered over them entering this postseason. Just like that, the location notwithstanding, Aaron Boone’s bunch controls this American League wild-card series.
The Yankees’ lineup put an absolute beatdown on presumptive AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber while their own ace, Gerrit Cole, dazzled in his Yankees postseason debut, adding up to a 12-3 Game 1 laugher over the Indians that, in a pandemic-free world, would’ve emptied out this place pretty close to how it looked here by the end. Up 1-0 in the best-of-three competition, the Yankees can advance to the AL Division Series on Wednesday (weather permitting) if their historic playoff stud Masahiro Tanaka lives up to his earned reputation.
“Crowd or no crowd, the Yankees are still gonna show up,” Aaron Judge said.
Or, as Luke Voit said before the game, “Everyone’s saying we only play good at Yankee Stadium. It’s a bunch of B.S. We’re ready to go. It doesn’t matter if we’re visitors or home.”
During their slog of a regular season, the Yankees went 22-9 at the Stadium and 11-18 elsewhere, elevating fears when their 2-6 finish to the regular season ensured them of zero tournament games in The Bronx. Yet the empty stands stood out in a way they hadn’t previously: When Judge clobbered a Bieber first-inning fastball into the right-field stands, with DJ LeMahieu already on first base via a single (of course), the Yankees’ dugout exploded with joy, reverberating throughout the ballpark. Such revelry wouldn’t have traveled anywhere as far in normal times, even in hostile territory.
Boone, referring to the piped-in crowd noise that included legendary fan John Adams pounding on his bass drum, said, “It felt a little raucous, honestly.” Yet maybe his guys’ raucousness distinguished itself as the only real noise.
The $324 million (now cut to $301.3 million) man Cole, clearly amped by the platform, responded by mowing down the Indians’ first three hitters Francisco Lindor (strikeout), Cesar Hernandez (strikeout) and Jose Ramirez (pop-out to Gleyber Torres), a most impressive shutdown inning, and the Yankees were off and running. The dugout exploded again, joined by family members from about 12 players, when Torres popped a two-run, fifth-inning homer to left-center field, the knockout punch as the Yankees lead jumped to 7-2 and Bieber departed, having allowed more than twice the most runs (three) he had surrendered in any of his 11 regular-season starts.
“I think all the guys in that room had a good feeling about today, being able to flip the switch after the regular season was over,” said Brett Gardner, who rewarded Boone’s faith in him by homering, doubling and singling as the starting left fielder. The Yankees’ beleaguered lineup displayed versatility, not relying exclusively on the homer while still delivering four of those; they went 3-for-8, all three of those hits singles, with runners in scoring position.
It was, in all, a virtually stress-free performance in the wake of such a stressful season. Can they move past this nerve-wracking lightning round in short order and head to San Diego, where their rivals the Rays likely will meet them, soaring with confidence?
“I miss the fans, especially in Cleveland,” said Judge, who then referred to the Yankees’ memorable ALDS victory here in 2017. “My favorite times are the pregame introductions. I miss those moments. But they turned up the crowd noise a little bit. The intensity was still the same.”
Was it that playoff intensity that turned the Yankees into road warriors? For one night, the first night, they allowed you to think anything was possible.