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Brett Gardner's clutch at-bat tells story of Yankees' epic ALDS comeback

If we had to pick one at-bat that best explained the entire Yankees-Indians ALDS, we’d pick Brett Gardner’s epic 12-pitch encounter against Indians’ closer Cody Allen in the ninth inning of Game 5.

That one extended battle captured everything that will define this stunning series. It highlighted the Yankees relentless nature in rallying from an 0-2 series deficit to take command in the final three games and ultimately advance to their first ALCS since 2012. It also highlighted the Indians inability to put New York away. With so many chances to assert themselves, the Indians faltered every time.

The Yankees were leading by a precious single run when Gardner stepped in. They had two runners on base and were looking for that one big hit that could knock the wind out of Cleveland’s sails.

On the other side, the Indians were one out away from escaping the inning. Just as important, they were one out away from entering their final at-bat needing one good swing to stay alive.

Both teams had players they wanted in the spotlight. Gardner is coming off career bests in home runs (21) and slugging percentage (.428), making him a threat to break the game wide open. Allen is a lockdown closer having racked up 96 total saves over the last three seasons. It was reasonable to expect him to bail the Indians out one more time.

Brett Gardner came through with the series-sealing hit against the Indians. (AP)

What ensued was a thrilling battle that showed the strengths and determination of both players. For the first six pitches they went back-and-forth, with Allen getting called strikes on a knucklecurve and fastball, while Gardner spit on one pitch in the dirt and spoiled another by fouling it off.

At that point, Allen was 33 pitches into his outing. It’s not a place closers get to very often. Gardner wore him out further by fouling off five straight 3-2 pitches. Then he pounced. On the 12th and final pitch of the at-bat, and the 39th and final pitch of Allen’s evening, Gardner pulled a 94-mph fastball on the outside corner to right field for a hit.

You could feel the air come out of Progressive Field as Aaron Hicks rounded third base to score the first critical insurance run. Then silence as Jay Bruce’s throw in bounced around the infield, allowing Todd Frazier to cross with the dagger.

Brett Gardner won the epic battle, and in the process earned the respect of his rival.

Meanwhile, the Indians put the finishing touches on their own disappointing tale by fumbling the baseball around.

It was fitting, yet heart-breaking. Perhaps one more than the other depending on your perspective.

It was not an at-bat or moment that will live in postseason lore. Many will have forgotten it by the time the ALCS begins. But it’s one Yankees fans won’t soon forget, especially if their team continues this unlikely run to the World Series and perhaps beyond. The same can be said in Cleveland, though for far different reasons. Like the Cubs celebrating their first World Series title in 108 years at Progressive Field last season, the outcome and images will haunt them.

Only now the narrative of blowing a 3-1 lead in the World Series will be replaced by losing six straight chances to put their opponents away. That’s brutal, but postseason baseball isn’t designed to be kind.

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Mark Townsend is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at bigleaguestew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!