For the length of 26 batters, from the moment the Indians chased CC Sabathia from the game in the fifth and got the Cleveland crowd back into things, until the moment Brett Gardner worked—and there is no better word than worked—an epic at-bat in the ninth, Game 5 of the ALDS was about as tense as games get: A one-run, winner-take-all game conducted by two of the best bullpens in baseball, brimful with strikeouts, base runners at a premium. There would be no dinger, no superheated single swing to break the K parade and either bring Cleveland level or buy the Yankees some relief. What there was was even more dramatic: six foul balls.
With two on and two out in the ninth, Gardner, who came to the plate with two hits already on the night, battled both Cody Allen and his own awareness of a notably vast strike zone for 12 pitches. Aaron Judge, who finished the series 1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts, was on deck, and the thought of walking Gardner to load the bases and pitch to Judge did cross Terry Francona’s mind, but not for very long. “If we walk him and Judge hits a ball 500 feet, I would have a hard time living with that,” Francona said. “No, that would be hard to do.”
What Cody Allen did instead, once he got Gardner to two strikes, was avoid giving him much to hit. Gardner saw a steady diet of chest-high fastballs on the outer half of the plate, strikes for sure (especially given how home plate ump Jeff Nelson, who might’ve had dinner reservations or something, had been calling just about everything a strike), but in the mid-90s and with Gardner worrying about Allen’s excellent curve—his swing-and-miss pitch—those outside fastballs weren’t anything that Gardner could do much with. So he fouled them off. Kept fouling them off. “I kind of laughed at him there after the 11th or 12th pitch,” Allen said. “And then, he got me.”
What Gardner got was an inside fastball, something he could get around on. He lined it to right, and one fielding miscue later, both baserunners were in and the Yankees had a 5-2 lead, and, ultimately, the series.
Here’s what Gardner saw. Pitches 1 and 3 were called strikes; all the other red ones he fouled off.
Working the count is an institutional Yankee strength, has been for the last couple of decades. (It’s a major reason Yankee games take so damn long.) This season, three of the top 13 MLB hitters in pitches per plate appearance are Yankees, and Gardner, despite a career-high 21 home runs, is just one of a couple slap hitters on that list. The ninth-inning AB was his second 12-pitch at-bat of the night. But this is how he’s always been, even when he came up in 2008 as a supposed weak-hitting, speedy, defensive-minded outfielder. It’s made him the longest-tenured Yankee on a team that’s now going to the ALCS.
As Cody Allen put it after the game, “every team in baseball could use a Brett Gardner.”