(Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports via REUTERS/NOAH K. MURRAY)
The last time these teams met, the Yankees knocked off the defending American League Champions in a five-game ALDS after falling behind two games to none. The three straight wins were delivered by a Yankees team many deemed to overachieve, riding high on an injection of youth experiencing postseason baseball for the first time in years. For the Indians, it was a disappointing loss after a season that saw them win 102 games, including a record 22 in a row.
Not much has changed since then. Both teams, predicated on youthful offensive talent and dominant pitching, enter their first matchup since the division series as teams expected to succeed in 2018. But both find themselves in different scenarios; the Yankees have played their finest baseball this season, winning 12 out of their last 13 while sweeping the juggernaut Angels in Anaheim, and then taking three out of four against the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros.
Meanwhile, the Indians will seek vengeance for their premature departure from postseason play in 2017. They enter the series not quite having found their footing, despite having a three and a half-game lead over the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.
Will this be the start of another torrid run for the Cleveland Indians, or will the Yankees remain the hottest team in baseball?
Gregorius vs. Lindor
Francisco Lindor's stardom has been undisputed. The switch-hitting 24-year-old shortstop from Puerto Rico enters his fourth season in the majors with already an impressive collection of hardware. The Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and Platinum Glove winner has made waves already this season with storybook home runs and philanthropy. Truly, since his arrival in the league, Lindor has been at the forefront at the league-wide initiative to make the game fun again, playing with the exuberance one would expect from a child who recognized the game as being that: a game.
That's not to say Lindor doesn't have a competitive side to him. He's established himself as a premier defensive shortstop and one of the best hitters at his position. His name constantly jostles with the likes of Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Xander Bogaerts as the best in baseball as he's become a marquee face in the sport.
But now another name can be added to that conversation. Sir Didi Gregorius—he of knighthood, heir to Derek Jeter, and master of tweets—will defend his Bronx turf starting Friday. The Yankee shortstop is on pace for a career year; ten home runs and 30 RBI in the first month of the 2018 season makes one wonder what could have been had he not missed the first month of 2017 due to a World Baseball Classic injury. The accolades may not be there for him; his lack of All-Star nominations, Gold Gloves, and Silver Sluggers is a testament to both his late blooming and deep competition.
If there are two names that demand the most attention, it's Lindor's and Gregorius'. Their impact on both sides of the baseball is too great to ignore, and this three-game series could provide great highlight reel plays.
The Indians and Yankees faced off 12 times in 2017 before their postseason matchup. The Indians held the advantage, winning seven of those games on their way to the second-best record in all of baseball.
They'll only play seven times this year and while this early matchup may not hold as much weight as the series they'll play at the end of July, it'll still be a series worth watching. Both teams feature Top 10 offenses in home runs (45-44 in favor of Cleveland), RBI (172-138 in favor of New York), and runs scored (178-144, again, New York).
Game one will see Josh Tomlin (0-4, 9.16 ERA) vs C.C Sabathia (2-0, 1.71 ERA). To say Sabathia has enjoyed a renaissance in his career would be an overstatement. This is the pitcher he is now, and no one should be surprised by it anymore. Meanwhile, the Indians send a struggling Tomlin who has given up 19 earned runs and 10 home runs in 18.2 innings.
Trevor Bauer will go against Sonny Gray on Saturday. Say what you will about Bauer's propensity for putting his foot in his mouth, but his actions can forgive his words as he's pitched to a 2.45 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 40.1 innings. Gray will seek to build on a promising start in Houston as he seeks to decrease an earned run average that sits north of six.
The series finale will see Mike Clevinger against Domingo German. It'll be the first professional start of the latter's career as he will try to prove himself an adequate replacement for the injured Jordan Montgomery. His last action came in Houston, providing four shutout innings of emergency relief after Montgomery was lifted due to a strained flexor tendon in his throwing elbow. On the other side, Clevinger has turned in three straight quality starts, including one complete game shutout in Baltimore.
The Yankees continue to be hot. If it's not their offense that's winning ballgames, it's their quality pitching and a dominant bullpen that stymies opposing lineups. The Yankees are fortunate to avoid Corey Kluber in the series, and the absence of Andrew Miller due to a hamstring injury significantly weakens the Indians' bullpen, but Cleveland has always boasted a strong rotation these past two years.
But it's hard not to play the hot hand in this matchup.
Prediction: Yankees win series two games to one.