CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Indians manager Terry Francona took the manager’s handbook and threw it in the garbage. And maybe he started writing his own guide in the process.
The topic? How to ignore bullpen roles and influence ballgames.
The scene? Thursday night at Progressive Field.
And the result?
A 5-4 victory by Cleveland over the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, a game which featured Francona’s lack of concern for previous notions about how relievers should be used.
And his decision-making probably sent a few baseball traditionalist on expletive-filled walks around their couches.
What?! *Grumble, grumble* This isn’t when you use your closer! What is he doing?!
At least, that was likely the reaction of some when they witnessed dominant left-hander Andrew Miller emerge from the bullpen in the fifth-inning of Cleveland’s victory, replacing Indians starter Trevor Bauer on the mound with two down in the frame and the Tribe holding a 5-3 advantage.
That’s right. The fifth. Not the eighth. Not the ninth.
The freaking fifth.
A little early to call on your relief ace? Not according to Francona.
“There was a lot of a combination of things,” he said. “I didn’t want them to come through the third time if they had a chance to tie the game. And Trevor was nearing 80 [pitches] coming back on short rest.”
True. Bauer, if necessary, will be brought back on three days rest to start Game 4. Limiting his workload in Game 1 was probably somewhere on the to-do list.
But another reason for Miller’s early entrance? Look no further than who the southpaw was asked to face: Brock Holt, Mookie Betts and David Ortiz.
If there’s anything the Baltimore Orioles’ loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card Game — a contest that ended without the Orioles using their best reliever, Zach Britton — should have taught everyone, it’s that a team should covet any matchup of their best pitcher against the opposing team’s best hurlers.
And that’s not just limited to the final two innings.
On Thursday, that meant a quick hook and the earliest entrance for Miller since his arrival from the New York Yankees in the big trade deadline deal. After all, when you give up what Cleveland did for the lefty, you sure as hell better get the most out of him.
Luckily for Francona, he’s got a set of relievers, led by Miller, ready to do whatever is asked of them. Even if that means throwing a season-high 40 pitches to get the job done, as the lefty did in Thursday’s win.
“I think at this point we’re all ready to go every day,” Miller said. “We’ll find a way. You prepare yourself, you try to take care of yourself. This organization, it’s unbelievable what they provided us to kind of go through what it takes to feel good. You’ve got to take advantage of that tomorrow and find a way to get out there.
“This is a selfless team. This win sums up who we are.”
Miller, in addition to throwing 40 pitches, tossed two innings, allowing one hit, one walk and striking out four.
But it wasn’t just the talented, lanky lefty going above and beyond to help Cleveland pick up the win. Cody Allen matched Miller’s total with 40 pitches of his own, nailing down the five-out save on Thursday night.
Allen picked up the final out by getting Dustin Pedroia to offer a pitch in the dirt, stranding the tying run at first base.
“We knew there might be a game or two throughout October where we had to do that,” Allen said. “Andrew came in and shouldered quite the load for us. The offense was able to get us a lead. That’s all we could really ask for, the lead late in the game.”
Before the series began, many expected the Indians’ bullpen to play a major role in the series. With Cleveland’s starting rotation hurting — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar both suffered injuries at the end of the season — the Tribe would need to lean heavily on their talented relievers, led by Miller and Allen.
Luckily, Thursday’s game proves Francona won’t hesitate to deploy his weapons in any way possible. And if that means getting 4 1/3 frames out of the bullpen, Cleveland won’t be afraid to use that strategy.
Maybe that’s something more clubs will consider moving forward.
“I think that certainly bullpens are kind of being adjusted right now,” Miller said. “They’re certainly something everyone talks about. Everyone wants to talk about the Royals the last few years. I saw what Boston did in 2013. I was part of Baltimore in 2014. Maybe as more and more stats come out, we realize there’s bigger moments in the game than the eighth and ninth inning, and that can be appreciated.”
And it was Francona’s ability to leverage his relievers when it mattered most that provided a big boost to Cleveland’s chances to emerge with the Game 1 victory in the best-of-five series against Boston.
After all, even despite the homer Brock Holt hit off Bryan Shaw in the eighth, the only run the pen allowed on Thursday night, the Indians found a way to get their two best relievers, Allen and Miller, into the game to face Ortiz in his final two at-bats of the game.
That’s as ideal as ideal gets.
“The playoffs are a different animal,” Miller said. “And it’s something that whenever Tito asks anybody to pitch, we’re all going to be ready to go. That’s the reality of the situation. It’s going to be the same way on teh side for the Boston guys. We’ll find a way.”
As for how the 80 combined pitches thrown by Miller and Allen impacts Game 2, the Tribe’s manager will cross that bridge on Friday afternoon.
“You’re certainly not going to see [them pitch] the exact same way tomorrow,” Francona said. “But we wanted to win the game tonight, and we did. Tomorrow might have to be a little bit different design.”
Having Corey Kluber set to start Game 2 helps. But if necessary, there’s little doubt that Cleveland’s relievers will be ready to step in whenever needed. And there’s no doubting Francona’s willingness to let them.
“Nobody ever said you have to be conventional to win,” Francona said. “We’ve talked about our bullpen, and those guys did a heck of a job.”