Oscar Gonzalez's walk-off single gives Cleveland ALDS lead

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Sunday, October 16, 2022
ESPN

CLEVELAND -- The New York Yankees did exactly what you think about when you think about the New York Yankees. They went deep, thrice, and still lost because the blooping and looping attack of the Cleveland Guardians just won't stop.

The Yankees bashed three homers, including a 449-foot shot by slumping slugger Aaron Judge on Saturday, but blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning to the small-ball Guardians, who won 6-5 in dramatic fashion Saturday to take a 2-1 lead in the American League Division Series and push New York to the precipice of elimination.

Cleveland did it the way that a bunch of gnats might annoy a bull, rolling up 15 hits, including 13 singles. The game winner was apropos to what the contact-hitting Guardians have been doing all season: Oscar Gonzalez bounced a two-out single up the middle with the bases loaded, plating two runs to cap the three-run, game-winning rally.

The walk-off hit put a sold-out Progressive Field into a frenzy, as the grandstand vibrated noticeably as the winning runs were scoring.

"Not any type of pressure," the unflappable Gonzalez said via an interpreter. "Just trying to put the ball in play and get the ball out. I'm just excited to have it happen."

Meanwhile, the Yankees collected just five hits on the night, four of them for extra bases, including the homers by Judge, Oswaldo Cabrera and Harrison Bader. But the power display went dark after an injury-ravaged bullpen turned out to be one arm short.

That arm belonged to Yankees closer Clay Holmes, who was not used Saturday to protect the lead after throwing 16 pitches in Game 2 on Friday. Holmes was on the injured list late in the season because of shoulder trouble, complicating how the Yankees can use him against the Guardians.

"Part of the thing with him being available for this series was not really in a back-to-back situation yet," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "He just hadn't thrown any live or anything. So while he was pretty good today and I fully expect him available tomorrow, it just felt like we needed to stay away there."

New York's decision to stay away from Holmes turned a lot of heads, though Boone suggested the plan to use Holmes only in an emergency was in place before the game. In the Yankees' clubhouse after the game, Holmes told reporters that he was surprised that he wasn't used.

The late loss turned out be a historic one for the Yankees, baseball's most storied postseason franchise. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Yankees had been 167-0 when leading by multiple runs entering the ninth, the best record and longest win streak in postseason history.

For Boone, the reality was it might not have mattered if Holmes had pitched with the Guardians putting every ball in play and placing them just out reach of Yankees fielders as if they were a bunch of scratch golfers sticking an approach shot on the green. The Guardians hit a couple of deep flies during the game, but nothing that left the yard. Didn't matter.

"I think on a warmer night, those balls go out and we would gladly would have accepted that," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. "Rather than putting your head down and pouting, they keep playing, and good things happen."

For Gonzalez, a 24-year-old rookie outfielder from the Dominican Republic, the postseason continues to be a coming out party. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gonzalez joined countryman David Ortiz as the only players in MLB history with three go-ahead hits in the ninth inning or later in a single postseason.

Besides all the game-turning hits, Gonzalez is also capturing hearts because of his walk-up music: the theme from the cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants."

"As I start getting off the deck, I just thank God for another opportunity to get to the plate," Gonzalez said. "I go there singing the song because [while] I have a big body, deep inside I feel like a kid."

During an era when hitting homers is almost a prerequisite for winning in the playoffs, when stringing together hits is so difficult, the Guardians -- baseball's youngest team -- are going about it a little bit differently. Only one team hit fewer homers during the regular season, but no team struck less frequently.

All of that was on display Saturday.

"We obviously have a different style of baseball," said rookie Steven Kwan, whoscored the tying run on Gonzalez's winning hit, just ahead of Amed Rosario. "To see that succeed and see that prevail I think is really rewarding for the game."

Along with the ability up and down the lineup to make contact, Cleveland has formed a collective willingness to take what the opponent offers and then hand the baton off to the next guy. Because increasingly, that next guy seems to get the job done.

"We love each other and care for each other, [and] we know as long as we get the next guy up, someone will get the job done," Kwan said. "Unselfish baseball, moving the chains, and luckily it worked out."

The Yankees are almost the inverse of the Guardians, which, in October, is typically a good thing. New York scored an MLB-high 51% of its runs this season on homers. During the first three games of the series, 10 of New York's 11 runs have come via the long ball.

Yet the gnats keep winning and the Yankees are on the cusp of being the behemoth that goes down to a thousand little bites. Those little blows didn't seem so small at the end of the game, when Gonzalez turned after his winning hit to watchRosario score the winning run. Gonzalez threw his batting helmet high into the air then raced toward home plate to join in the celebration with his jubilant teammates.

Such losses this time of the year are hard to stomach, but if you expect the Yankees to carry Saturday's disappointment into Sunday night, when Game 4 is slated to pit New York ace Gerrit Cole against Cleveland righty Cal Quantrill, don't tell that to Boone.

"Hell no," Boone said emphatically. "No, not allowed to. We'll be ready to go."

So too will be the Guardians, who might be armed with nothing but slingshots, but it's gotten them this far. One more well-placed salvo might just push upstart Cleveland within one step of a World Series.

"We're not going to change our game style for anybody," Kwan said. "As long as we keep rolling, we can do it."

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