Clutch hitting fuels Tribe in ALDS win
Offense shines with two outs and runners in scoring position
NEW YORK -- The Cleveland lead sat at 1-0 in the first inning of Monday's American League Division Series contest at Yankee Stadium, courtesy of Grady Sizemore's leadoff home run against New York starting pitcher Chien-Ming Wang.But with two outs and Travis Hafner on second base, the Indians did not seem satisfied with the lone tally. They weren't about to leave another important run out on the basepaths. This moment perfectly exemplifies the manner in which Cleveland's offense operated during the first round of the 2007 postseason. The Indians' focus at the plate went up a notch with two outs and runners in scoring position. In this particular instance, Jhonny Peralta was waging a battle against Wang. After taking two pitches outside the zone, the Cleveland shortstop fouled off three straight sinkers in the 95-mph range to stay alive. The count went full before Peralta dumped a soft single to center in front of Melky Cabrera, scoring Hafner. Paul Byrd now had a two-run cushion before taking the mound. The Indians once again put the Yankees in a hole, just when it looked like they would escape further damage. So, what was the Indians' secret to this two-out success, resulting in 12 hits in 28 at-bats and 13 runs scored? Keeping things simple ultimately did the most damage. "We didn't try to do too much, just try to make contact with the ball," said Peralta, who hit .467 for the series but also had two hits and two RBIs with two out and runners in scoring position. "When we got guys on base, we just tried to do whatever to get him in." "It's about being smart, being patient and taking good swings," Cleveland left fielder Kenny Lofton added. Lofton clearly knows about the topic at hand, briefly dissecting the Indians' four-game series victory over the Yankees in a champagne-drenched corner of the visitors' clubhouse on Monday night. Lofton knocked three two-out hits in Game 1 of this series, driving home four runs. In a short, five-game series between top-notch playoff talent, a team rarely powers its way into the next round with hitting alone. The winner usually has the best overall pitching, as the Indians clearly did in this instance, and the best offense when it matters most. Not only did the Indians succeed in building momentum with these two-out hits, but they also added a little extra punch to the Yankees' collective midsections through four two-strike, two-out hits. And the Indians reached this offensive nirvana by not trying to do too much in each at-bat, something they were unable to do while gripping the bats a little tight during six regular-season losses to Joe Torre's crew. "For us, it's all about maintaining a game plan," said Cleveland third baseman Casey Blake, who delivered a two-out, two-run double during the fifth inning of Game 1. "It's relaxing in pressure situations and allowing your ability to take over."
"During the regular season, we tried to do too much against the Yankees and maybe got caught up in the names we were facing," Cleveland first baseman Ryan Garko said. "That just went away in this series. It was amazing. The veterans helped out, but it also comes from the manager."Garko spoke of how the only message from manager Eric Wedge before this series began was "be yourself and do what we've done all year." But talking about such concepts as sticking with a game plan and not trying to do too much seems far too simple of a response for maybe the toughest question in all of sports -- how to hit a baseball. That inquiry becomes even more difficult with the pressure of the playoffs and the added onus of the two-out situations. Garko used his pair of two-out, run-scoring hits as an example. Instead of trying to drive the offerings from Wang or Roger Clemens, in Game 1 and Game 3, respectively, he took each pitch and grounded it back up the middle. Simple game plan, complicated results for New York. "If I would have tried to do too much, I probably would have ended up hitting a ground ball to third," added Garko with a smile. But another bonus comes from these big two-out hits, aside from the obvious contributing factor to earning the franchise's first spot in the ALCS since 1998. The clutch at-bats and extra runs also drove up the Yankees' pitch counts, allowing the Indians to get into the bullpen early and then eventually tiring out said relievers. "Extending out the inning for the opposing pitcher ends up becoming a big thing during the playoffs," Cleveland hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "We went through a tough time in August, when we got away from our approach, and we didn't get a lot of two-strike or two-out hits. It's something we focused on and tried to change in the last month of the season." As Cleveland's victory over New York is recounted in the future, the focus of the tale will fall on the gritty efforts from starters C.C. Sabathia and Paul Byrd and Fausto Carmona's dominance on the mound in his first playoff start. The bullpen wasn't half bad either. For a team hitting .257 with runners in scoring position and two outs in the regular season, its success in these same pressure-packed scenarios ultimately made the difference. The challenge only gets tougher, though, against Boston's group of dominant hurlers. Then again, keeping it simple worked once and might be the solution again.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.