Were the Indians a better team than the Yankees this year? Quite simply, no. The Indians won 96 games to the Yankees' 94, and they only allowed 704 runs to New York's 777, but that's about it. The Yankees thrashed them in six regular season meetings, outscoring them 49-11 in sweeping series in April and August. Against the rest of the league, it was much the same. New York's run differential was +191 (meaning they scored 191 more runs than they allowed, 2nd best in the league to Boston), while Cleveland's was only 107. But this is really quibbling. Both teams were definitely two of the four best teams in the league.
So did this series prove that the Indians are actually better than the Yankees? Hardly. In fact, no five-game series will ever prove such a thing. Would it be possible, for instance, for the Florida Marlins (or any other bottom dweller) to win a five game series against one of the top teams in the league? Certainly. The Marlins swept all six games against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs. But what about this particular four-game series between the Yanks and Tribe? If you only watched the highlights on SportsCenter or read the blurb in your morning paper, you can be forgiven for thinking that the better team won, but if you watched every pitch of every game (like I did), you know that the answer isn't quite that simple.
Here's the one stat that you need to know. Until late in game four, the Indians as a team were actually hitting .500 with two outs and runners in scoring position. This is insane, a number which points to a fair degree of luck. By calling this lucky, I am in no way saying the Indians didn't deserve to win, I'm just acknowledging the place that luck has in baseball, perhaps more than any other sport. More on this later...
Now let's look at the individual games.
Indians 12, Yankees 3. This was the game where the Yankees had no shot, right? Trailing 4-2 in the top of the fifth, New York mounted a rally. Bobby Abreu sliced a double down the left field line to score Shelly Duncan and push Johnny Damon to third. Suddenly up by only a run with the meat of the Yankee order coming up and only one out, Cleveland manager Eric Wedge wisely chose to walk Alex Rodríguez, looking for a double play from Jorge Posada. Were it not for A-Rod's historic season, Posada would have been the Yankees' clear MVP. C.C. Sabathia, meanwhile, was struggling, having already thrown close to a hundred pitches. C.C. dialed it up, though, and struck out Posada before getting Hideki Matsui to pop-up to end the threat. Cleveland then came up in the bottom half of the inning and plated five runs, essentially ending the game. What might've happened if either Posada or Matsui had come through? Or what if Posada had even managed a sac fly? A baseball game, even one that ends with a nine-run margin, can sometimes turn on a single at bat, and this was one of them.
Indians 2, Yankees 1. Depending on how you look at it, this was either the game when Cleveland's luck abandoned them or the game when Andy Pettitte pitched like a magician. Pettitte pitched into the seventh inning, allowing base runners in every frame. Most of these runners led off the innings (a Grady Sizemore single in the first, a Jason Michaels double in the third, a Travis Hafner single in the fourth, a Kenny Lofton single in the fifth, and a Sizemore triple in the sixth), but none of them scored. With one out in the seventh, lucky enough to be clinging to a 1-0 lead because Melky Cabrera had deposited Cleveland pitcher Fausto Carmona's only mistake of the night into the right field stands in the third inning, Pettitte got even luckier when Jhonny Peralta launched a missile to straight away center field. It bounced high off the wall for a double, but had it been eighteen inches higher or eighteen inches to the right, the game would've been tied.
Joe Torre smartly went to his favorite new toy, Joba Chamberlain, and order was quickly restored. Through seven innings, the Yankees were right where they wanted to be, up by a run with the most dominant pitcher in baseball (at least in August and September) on the mound, to be followed quickly by Mariano Rivera (arguably the most dominant pitcher of the last ten years) waiting to pitch the ninth. No problems, right? Perhaps in response to the run of luck the Yankees had been enjoying for seven innings, things changed dramatically in the bottom of the eighth. I'm not sure if Lake Erie was running red, but there was a plague of biblical insects inside Jacobs Field, and they descended upon Chamberlain. Covered by bugs and clearly flustered, the man who had struck out 34 while walking only six in 24 regular season innings suddenly lost the strike zone. He threw sixteen pitches to the first five hitters in the eighth with these results: 11 balls, 5 strikes, one hit batter, and two wild pitches (one of which allowed the winning run to score). Carmona dealt with the same insects in the top halves of the seventh and eighth, but he seemed to get them as they were coming and going; Joba had them at their thickest. What if the umpires had halted the game as they probably should have? What if the swarm had never arrived in the first place? Luck allowed the Yankees to hold the lead for seven innings; luck allowed the Indians to tie it up in the eighth.
Yankees 8, Indians 4. Who'd have thought that the only game the Yankees would win in the series would be the one in which Roger Clemens limped his way out of the game and finally into retirement? I can't really say that luck had much to do with this one. Jake Westbrook pitched like Jake Westbrook, and Phil Hughes pitched well in relief of Clemens.
Indians 6, Yankees 4. In many ways, this was the strangest game of the series. The pedestrian Paul Byrd kept the Yankees off balance all night long, Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang turned in his second consecutive disastrous start, and the Yankee pitchers who weren't named Joba or Mo actually did their jobs, shutting down the Indians over the last five innings and giving their team a chance to get back in the game. But how did the runs score? The Indians had their share of blasts (Sizemore's no-doubt homer to lead off the game and a couple of Kelly Shoppach doubles come to mind, but the back-breakers were a bloop single by Asdrubal Cabrera with two outs and two strikes in the second and a ground ball by Victor Martínez with the bases loaded in the fourth. The Yankees, meanwhile, made their money the hard way, tallying their four runs with three solo home runs and a bases loaded single.
So we can look at all this in two different ways. Maybe the Indians came through when they had to, buckling down with two outs and getting the hits that good teams and clutch players get. Maybe the Yankees wilted under the pressure of their owner's yearly mandate to win the World Series. Maybe the best team won.
Or maybe the Indians just got lucky.
I don't think we can discount either answer, but a seven-game series would be much more equitable than a five-gamer. Would the Yankees have been able to beat C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, and Jake Westbrook in games five, six, and seven to win a longer series? It would've been difficult, but it would've been possible. Sabathia was shaky in game one, Carmona might never again pitch as well as he did in game two, and Jake Westbrook is Jake Westbrook.
If the NBA can convince people to pay attention to seven-game series in a sport in which luck plays a minimal role, why can't major league baseball? If they had started the first round on Tuesday as they always have, then given off days for travel on Thursday and Monday, a seven-game series would end Wednesday at the latest. The league championship series would then start on Friday -- exactly as it's scheduled now.
All that being said, it's impossible to completely eliminate luck in any playoff series. The best example of this is probably the 2001 World Series. The Arizona Diamondbacks thoroughly outplayed the three-time defending champion Yankees, outscoring them 28-3 in games one, two, and six while losing three one-run games (two in miraculous fashion) before heading to the deciding seventh game. To say that the Yankees were lucky even to have made it to the seventh game would be an understatement; that they actually made it to the ninth inning of that game and were able to put the ball in Rivera's hand was ridiculous. But just when things seemed most certain, when the role of luck seemed to have been extinguished, everything exploded. A broken bat single, an error by the best fielding pitcher I've ever seen, a failure by a Gold Glove third baseman to complete a double play, a line drive down the right field line, a hit batter by a pitcher who had hit one batter all year long, another broken bat single, and the Diamondbacks were champions.
Now that's lucky.