The Cleveland Indians swept the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series, emerging victorious in Game 3 at Fenway Park, 4-3, advancing to the League Championship Series.
This column presents my takeaways from Monday’s game. For more baseball analysis and insight, follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
SMART CHOICES, BAD CHOICES
It should have been obvious from the start.
In a series that featured good call after good call by the Indians, Cleveland was the beneficiary of another good decision in Game 3 when Coco Crisp’s sacrifice bunt in the top of the fourth helped lead to a two-run single by rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin, giving the Tribe the early advantage they’d never surrender.
But the choice to move the runners up 90 feet was anything but a slam dunk choice, especially considering Naquin’s 30.7 percent strikeout rate this season. Cleveland was desperate for a ball to be put in play, and as the situation began to unfold, the left-handed hitter’s propensity to swing and miss didn’t make him an obvious candidate to deliver in the clutch situation.
To his credit, however, Naquin took advantage of a questionable gameplan by Boston starter Clay Buchholz, cashing in on a curveball down and in and dumping it into right field to put Cleveland ahead for good.
Naquin has been one of baseball’s best off-speed (curves, sliders, changeups) this season, but as his heatmap would indicate, the best way to retire the rookie outfielder is to give him a steady diet of fastballs up in the zone.
But the Red Sox’s curious pitch selection to Indians hitters would continue later in the evening, benefiting Cleveland once again on a mistake breaking ball thrown to Crisp, who clubbed a two-run homer over the Green Monster in left field, a two-run shot which would eventually become the difference in Game 3.
That sort of pitch mix was interesting, given that the Indians own the third-highest batting average and slugging percentage on off-speed and breaking pitches this season. But then again, good decisions by Cleveland and poor ones by Boston seemed to help define parts of the Tribe’s sweep in the best-of-five series.
Speaking of Crisp’s massive two-run bomb off former Indians prospect Drew Pomeranz in the top of the sixth, the outfielder’s biggest hit since returning to Cleveland at the end of August in a trade with the Oakland Athletics, the MLB postseason has a unique way of taking everything you know about baseball and flipping it upside down.
Let’s take Crisp for example. The switch-hitting veteran has struggled to hit left-handed pitching all season, and in fact, his inability to consistently provide production against southpaws was probably somewhere on the things to watch list for Cleveland entering the playoffs. And his regular season splits told the same story:
But as much as baseball is a sport about finding comfortable sample sizes to make informed decisions, the postseason, filled with five and seven-game series, is anything but predictable. The shorter the series, the more likely it is that something uncharacteristic can help determine an outcome.
Not only is Crisp nothing close to being a power hitter, but his struggles from the right side made his heroics in Game 3 that much more incredible and improbable, which falls in line with baseball’s unique ability to create unlikely heroes in October.
Need more proof? Look no further than Roberto Perez’s big fly in Game 1 or Lonnie Chisenhall’s back-breaking three-run homer off a lefty in Game 2.
The addition of Andrew Miller at the trade deadline by Cleveland earned all the headlines. And rightfully so. But the Indians’ first-round victory over the Red Sox was about more than just Terry Francona’s ability to leverage a dominant southpaw like Miller out of the pen however he chose.
Miller’s two appearances were critical — the lefty worked a total of four innings in two appearances, allowing a pair of hits, two walks and recording seven strikeouts — and when the lefty got the outs were just as important, but Miller wasn’t the only in-season pickup coming up big for Cleveland in the series.
Crisp’s big homer in Game 3 end up being a difference maker in the ballgame. Brandon Guyer’s three hits in Game 2 vs. David Price were also pretty impressive in the Indians’ 6-0 victory on Friday at Progressive Field.
When added to Miller’s contributions, the trio of trade acquisitions made the Tribe’s front office, including the team’s president of baseball operations, Chris Antonetti, and general manager, Mike Chernoff, look incredibly smart. And of course, Francona deserves some credit for deploying the three in the correct ways to get the most out of the trade pickups.
Josh Tomlin’s five-inning performance was impressive, pitching in a hostile environment as fans chanted his name in an attempt to rattle the right-handed hurler. But Tomlin was unflappable on Monday night, allowing just a pair of runs before turning things over Cleveland’s stellar bullpen.
The matchup of Tomlin and the Red Sox’s hitter was fascinating to begin with. Boston is a team built on patience of making the opposition throw strikes. And that worked for them all season, scoring more runs than any club in the American League while looking at more pitches than anyone else in the AL.
But Tomlin’s ability to fire strikes early in the count seemed to serve as an excellent way to manage Boston’s patient approach, forcing the Red Sox to adjust in their second trip through the order after the righty limited the damage and kept the opposition off balance in the early innings.
Tomlin relied most on his fastball and curveball, throwing just five cutters, the pitch that led to some issues in his troublesome month of August.
Tomlin’s gutsy performance in Game 3 fell in line with a theme Indians pitching followed throughout the ALDS series against Boston — control the Red Sox’s talented combination of hitters:
On some level, it was amazing that a series which featured a 2-0 Indians lead could hold so much incredible drama in the late innings, but with each inning, fans were edging closer and closer to the front of their seats.
Perhaps a great deal of that came from David Ortiz’s impending retirement. The left-handed slugger has had so many big moments in his career it was difficult not to expect some magic late in Game 3. But outside of an Ortiz sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth, little of the drama came from Big Papi.
In fact, the DH was removed in the eighth for a pinch-runner after Cody Allen walked the slugger on four pitches, meaning any chance of a Sox rally in the ninth was not going to come from Ortiz’s direction.
Allen still made it rather interesting, falling behind nearly every hitter he faced in the eighth and ninth, but the right-handed reliever finally recovered to induce the fly ball to right field by Travis Shaw to end Monday’s thrilling game.
With their three-game sweep of the Red Sox now in the books, the Indians will control home-field advantage for the rest of the postseason (ALCS, World Series) and will meet the Toronto Blue Jays in the upcoming league championship series.
Game 1 of the ALCS between the Indians and Blue Jays will kick off on Friday night at Progressive Field. The winner of the best-of-seven series will advance to represent the American League in the World Series.