The Yankees surprised everyone by knocking Corey Kluber out in the third inning of Game 2 of the ALDS. It's hard to believe that Kluber will suffer another off night in Game 5, making the Yankees task more difficult in Wednesday's winner-take-all contest.
If the Yankees are to defeat Kluber - or at least quickly force him from the game again - they will need to maintain the same approach they mustered in Game 2. The hitch is Kluber is not likely to make it as easy as he did in his first start of the series.
The Yankees will need peak performance early on; someone to set the tone and make life difficult on Kluber. Some will point to Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez, the obvious fire power providers, to spark the club.
However, the true catalyst must be Yankees leadoff hitter Brett Gardner.
Gardner does not have remarkable career statistics against Kluber, going 4-for-19 with a homer including his 0-for-2 against him in Game 2. However, make no mistake that as Gardner goes, so do the Yankees.
He is not having a spectacular postseason - 5-for-20, 4 R, 2B, HR - yet, he managed two hits in Game 4. Gardner is streaky, so if he gets on base in the game's first plate appearance, he could gain confidence for the second time up and through the remainder of the game.
The lefty can torment Kluber in multiple ways. He has the ability to ambush a flat fastball, or a hanging breaking ball into the right field seats especially to lead off a game (he hit five of his 21 homers in such situations in 2017). Gardner saw 4.23 pitchers per plate appearance in 2017 (13th in MLB) where the league average was 3.88. This might result in a walk, and minimally forces Kluber to raise his pitch count. Gardner can also bunt for a hit or slap one to right field.
The key for the Yankees is to get Gardner on base. He might not have the speed he used to, but he can still swipe a bag in the right spot (23 steals in 2017). Beyond the steals, Gardner on base benefits the rest of the lineup.
Without suggesting that Kluber will be rattled with Gardner on first or second base, the Indians ace will need to make adjustments with the hitters in such conditions. Pitching out of the stretch, eyeballing Gardner, etc. should provide Judge, Didi Gregorius and Sanchez a different look of Kluber. Maybe, just maybe, they'll get one of the few mistakes Kluber might throw and drive Gardner in.
Like Gardner, the No. 2 - 4 hitters for the Yankees in the series have struggled going a combined 6-for-47 (.128) with two homers (both by Sanchez) and 22 strikeouts (12 from Judge). That said, if Gardner is already on base, Kluber will have to be respectful of the trio's knack to generate loud hits.
The task is daunting for the Yankees, especially with Gardner and rest of the top four in the lineup being held in check for the most part in the series. However, the trends of the regular season eventually come to fruition as the postseason wears on. When Gardner succeeds, so do the Yankees, making him the team's offensive key in the decisive Game 5.