CLEVELAND — It may only be a first-round series, and it doesn’t put another trophy in the case for a franchise that has 27 world championships, but this comeback against the Indians surely deserves a prominent position in the Yankees’ storied history.
Not just because they were down 0-2 against the mighty Indians, the best team in baseball over the final two months of the season — though that’s certainly a gigantic accomplishment in itself.
No, you can’t ignore the melodrama of that Game 2 loss, when the Yankees flew home fighting the feeling they’d blown the series by giving away an 8-3 lead, perhaps wondering if their manager was on his way to getting fired after making a colossal blunder that night.
No way they were coming all the way back from all that baggage.
Yet here they were in Game 5, gutting out a 5-2 win against the Indians in a Game 5 that was a showcase for Didi Gregorius, who hit two home runs in a Derek Jeter-worthy October performance, as well as the bulked-up bullpen GM Brian Cashman saw as a way to perhaps win a championship a year ahead of schedule.
Mostly, however, it completed an emotional redemption story for Joe Girardi, who admitted how meaningful it was that his players essentially took him off the hook for his infamous non-challenge in Game 2.
Girardi told of how he called a meeting before Game 3 to tell them what he’d said publicly on the off-day, that he screwed up. He told them how much he believed and implored them to play for just one win, as had been their theme all year, and continue to have one another’s backs.
“And Todd Frazier was the first guy that said something — ‘let’s go’” Girardi recalled. “And that did stick out in my mind. I’ll never forget that.
“Because I was about as low as I could be. It happened on Friday and I’ve been carrying this burden for five or six days. It’s hard.
“If we lose on Sunday, it really hurts. If we lose on Monday, it really, really hurts. And if we would have lost tonight, it probably would have hurt even worse.
“So for me, what those guys did for me, I’ll never forget it.”
Girardi has never seemed to be a manager who inspires players to run through walls for him, but perhaps the harsh criticism he received, and the booing before Game 3, became something of a rallying cry for this team.
“This was for Joe,’’ Frazier said. “A lot of criticism went his way and it shouldn’t have. We came together as a team for him.
“I told him, ‘we’ve got your back 100 percent.’ I know it took a toll on him. We saw that and we were 100 percent behind him.”
GM Brian Cashman, who had not commented since everything happened on Friday, said Wednesday night that Girardi apologized to him for the non-challenge after Game 2.
In turn, the GM said he told Girardi, “Hey, you just keep battling. You’ve got another game coming up.”
Cashman didn’t go into detail about the organization’s thinking on Girardi’s status, but clearly coming back to knock off the Indians makes the idea of firing him a non-issue — as long as the manager wants to come back.
Now the question is how the Yankees will regroup after a series that took so much out of them emotionally, considering they open the ALCS on Friday in Houston against the Astros.
Can they continue to dig deep after winning three straight elimination games — and four overall in this postseason?
Right now anything seems possible after they roughed up Corey Kober, thought to be Superman, for the second time in this series, knocking him out in the fourth inning.
Their pitching has been great as well, though shutting down the Astros’ offensive firepower may be even a tougher task.
With that in mind, while so much of the drama in the series was about Girardi, Cashman can take another bow for the trades he made to make this happen. The deal with the White Sox for David Robertson, as well as Tommy Kahnle and Todd Frazier, turned out to be a season-saver.
Robertson, spectacular in the wild-card victory over the Twins, got the biggest outs on this night, coming in for CC Sabathia in the fifth inning with runners at first and second to get an inning-ending ground-ball double play — slamming the door on the Indians’ only real rally of the night.
Of course, Cashman also turned Aroldis Chapman into top prospect Gleyber Torres at the 2016 trade deadline, then re-signed the closer for $86 million.
Finally, Gregorius already had proven to be an all-time steal, coming over from the Diamondbacks three years ago for Shane Greene, but this was a game to make him part of Yankee’ October folklore, along with Jeter and Reggie and the others.
When it was all said and done, it added up to something that felt like more significant than just a division-round victory. Maybe it proves to be an important building block for next year and beyond, or who knows, maybe it was just a first step to something much bigger this October.