First, a little convoluted logic:
The Yankees, as a baseball franchise, know better than any other just what’s possible, despite long odds. They have been there. They have witnessed it. There have been, since the advent of the World Series in 1903, 294 postseason series (not counting the 12 one-and-done wild-card games played since 2011).
One-hundred-seventy-four of them were best-of-seven.
In only one of them did a team holding a 3-0 lead not win the series.
OK. You’re a Yankees fan. You don’t have to be reminded of what happened in the 2004 American League Championship Series — and you’re probably not especially pleased to be forced to relive it right there. That’s fair. That’s understandable. But that’s also helpful, if you’re trying to figure out a way to do a three-point turn out of the tricky place the Yankees presently find themselves.
Because coming back from 0-2 down in a best-of-five has been done. Actually, the Yankees know all about that, too, from both sides of the issue. In 2001, the Moneyball Athletics walked into Yankee Stadium in the ALDS and behind Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder seized a 2-0 lead; the Yankees responded by winning one close game (the Derek Jeter Flip Game) and one blowout in Oakland before returning to The Bronx and finishing the come back.
That’s the good news.
Now for the better news, which comes in the form of a terrible memory:
As much momentum as it seems the Indians might be bringing to Game 3 with them Sunday afternoon, they can’t possibly feel as good about themselves as the Yankees did in the early morning hours of Oct. 5, 1995, at 30,000 feet travelling 3,000 miles from New York to Seattle.
At 1:22 a.m., Jim Leyritz had crushed a two-run home run in the rain off Tim Belcher, ending a wild, 5-hour and 12-minute game, pushing the Yankees to a 2-0 lead over the Mariners in the first-ever ALDS (and giving a young long reliever named Mariano Rivera his first career postseason victory). The Stadium was a tinderbox all night as the Yankees erased deficits of 1-0, 2-1 and 5-4 (the latter in the 12th inning).
The Mariners had no shot to overcome that.
Only they overcame that (along with a 5-0 deficit in Game 4), and won the series, and probably saved baseball in Seattle along the way.
So, yes, you look for precedents when you’re in a predicament.
But it also helps to look for sound and helpful words of advice.
“I think we have to try and keep it simple. We’ll show up tomorrow and our only goal is to win tomorrow. If you start looking ahead, it starts to look a little daunting.”
Those words were uttered 13 years ago by the man who will be sitting in the Indians’ dugout behind third base on Sunday. Thirteen years ago, it was easy to dismiss Terry Francona’s hopeful pleas as the empty oaths of a manager who had never accomplished very much, and was on the verge of seeing his Red Sox get swept out of the ALCS by their ancient rivals.
Now, of course, Francona is a virtual baseball shaman, a wise elder with shiny rings and shinier trophies to speak on his behalf should he want to. But for the Yankees, those are the wisest of all words to live by — and the task at hand is a third of the way shorter than the path the ’04 Sox needed to negotiate. So there’s that.
But there’s also this:
There is one team in baseball that understands that baseball series must be played to the final out to the final game of a series. And that team is the Indians. Though the buzz around them is deafening, as it should be, with 102 victories and a 22-game win streak and that amazing comeback Friday, one fact about this team sticks to them like lint.
They are the defending American League champions.
But they are not the defending World Champions because a year ago they held a 3-1 lead in the World Series — essentially the same advantage they hold over the Yankees now — and they could not prevent the Cubs from an ill-timed three-game winning streak, the way they need to deny the Yankees a three-game winning streak.
They know what lurks if they loiter with this series. The Yankees have to hope it becomes a habit.