CLEVELAND (AP) - There were no noticeable signs of panic or pressure. Now is not the time to show any weakness.
As the Cleveland Indians got ready for their biggest game this season, a winner-take-all Game 5 against the New York Yankees, everything seemed normal, routine.
Before answering questions at his news conference, manager - and Cavs’ season-ticket holder - Terry Francona asked about the NBA team’s new lineup, joked about his limited vocabulary and later tried on All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor’s diamond-encrusted, $30,000 necklace.
The mood around the cage was typically loose Tuesday during batting practice, with a few players shagging flies while keeping an eye on slugger Edwin Encarnacion as he tested his sprained ankle.
Their season is on the line, and the Indians, who haven’t lost three straight since Aug. 1, know it.
“Boils down to the loser goes home,” ace Corey Kluber said.
Unable to put the Yankees away in the booming Bronx, the Indians, who are chasing their first World Series title since 1948, have another chance to advance on Wednesday night - and a date with Houston in the ALCS - against a New York team riding momentum into the finale of this AL Division Series.
Cleveland’s 2-0 series lead seemed to vanish in a New York minute.
Backed by a raucous crowd that rocked Yankee Stadium on every pitch, the wild-card winners edged the Indians 1-0 in Game 3, and then took advantage of four errors by one of baseball’s best defensive teams in Game 4 to win 7-3 on Monday night. After the Yankees blew a five-run lead and lost Game 2 in 13 innings on Friday night, it appeared their days were numbered.
Instead, they fought back. CC Sabathia knew they would.
“This is a team that I felt like every time, whether it’s in a game or coming up through the season, we had tough times or backs against the wall, I felt like we responded really well,” said Sabathia, who will face Kluber in Game 5. “So I didn’t see why we couldn’t go home and play well and end up back here.”
And here they are, these Yankees, who have staved off elimination three times in the past week.
They battled back from a 3-0 deficit in the first inning against Minnesota in the wild card, shook off a punch-in-the-gut loss and a controversy in Game 2, and are poised to possibly dethrone the defending AL champions.
For Yankees manager Joe Girardi, redemption is within reach.
His decision not to ask for a replay review in Game 2 turned New Yorkers against their manager, who was booed at home and had to fight back tears following Monday’s win. Girardi dismissed any personal satisfaction in his team’s comeback, putting the pinstripes above all.
“It’s really important for the guys, the organization, the ownership, management, fan base,” he said. “You really want to move on. We got back to this spot by battling and fighting, and we’re going to need to do it again.”
Kluber, too, has a chance to redeem himself. The right-hander only lasted 2 2-3 innings in Game 2, a performance nearly as stunning as one of his gems.
The likely Cy Young winner was candid when asked what he needs to do better in Game 5.
“Everything,” he said.
Although they’ve lost five straight clinching games dating to last year’s World Series, the Indians like their chances with Kluber on the mound. He’s 15-2 with a 1.62 ERA since June 1 and hasn’t had consecutive poor starts all season. Francona was criticized for not starting Kluber in Game 1, but he had his reasons.
“We tried to be prepared for just about every scenario that could be thrown at us, and I think we feel real comfortable with how we went about everything and we wanted Kluber if we got to this game,” he said. “We got to this game.”
The Indians may also have Encarnacion for the first time since Game 2, when he sprained his right ankle. Cleveland’s cleanup hitter has responded well to treatment and tested his ankle by jogging in the outfield.
Later, he faced Ryan Merritt in a simulated game, singled and tipped his cap after running to first.
Encarnacion’s presence and pop transforms the Indians.
“We know how dangerous he is,” Girardi said. “He’s probably been one of the best RBI guys in our league for the last three or four years. He changes the lineup.”
Francona is considering four lineups contingent on the health of Encarncacion and third baseman Giovanny Urshela, who took a line drive off the shin in Game 4 and committed two errors.
It’s simpler for Girardi, who has settled on his lineup except for the DH.
Before the Indians left New York, Francona gave a speech “for literally 30 seconds.” There wasn’t much needed to be said to a team that has overcome injuries and obstacles all season.
October has been no different.
“It’s not always going to be 72 and sunny,” Francona said. “We realize that. You’ve got to fight through it together and that’s what we intend to do.”
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