CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The Cleveland Indians beat the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 of the American League Division series, 2-0, taking a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven matchup.
This column presents my three takeaways from Friday’s game at Progressive Field. For more baseball analysis and insight, follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. ACE EFFORT
The Indians have a formula for success in the postseason. And it worked to perfection on Friday night, thanks to some tremendous starting pitching, superb relief work and an extremely well-time round-tripper by Cleveland’s talented shortstop, Francisco Lindor.
Things won’t always go to plan. And sometimes the blue print needs to be altered for a specific ballgame in the playoffs — like using an ace reliever far earlier than anticipated, for instance. But the general idea remains the same: Get a lead, hold the lead, set up the bullpen, profit.
A large portion of Friday’s credit should go to Cleveland’s ace, Corey Kluber, who managed to limit some early traffic early and settled in late. If not for his ability to escape some early trouble in the first, second and third innings — the righty allowed a pair of baserunners in each of the first three frames — Lindor and the pen never would have gotten a chance to fulfill their starring roles in Game 1.
Of course, this is the sort of effort the Indians have come to expect from their no. 1 starter. And say what you will about Cleveland holding home field advantage in this series, Friday’s series opener probably held a bit more importance for the Tribe, knowing how crucial a win was given the state of the Indians’ banged up and juggled rotation.
“[When there was some] traffic, boy he’d bear down,” manager Terry Francona said. “And his breaking ball was, at times, devastating.”
Five of the six punchouts Kluber recorded on Friday night came on his curve-slider combo.
Additionally, Kluber’s ability to tap dance out of trouble early and settle in late was absolutely critical, allowing six hits and two walks, but striking out six and retiring nine of the final 10 batters he faced in Game 1, extending his postseason scoreless streak to 13 1/3 frames to begin his MLB playoff career.
The righty even managed to overcome the five hits which came with two strikes, including three on 0-2 counts, an abnormality for the pitcher who typically unleashes some lethal breaking balls when up in the count.
“There was some stressful innings early on,” Kluber said. “But it wasn’t like the wheels were spinning kind of thing. I was doing a good job of getting ahead in the count, I just didn’t make good pitches once I was there, so it was just trying to fix that issue.”
2. WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION
When the Indians acquired Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees and paid a tremendous price in prospects to get him, more than a few fans scratched their heads as to why Cleveland would give up the sort of perceived talent they did for a pitcher who potentially logs just one inning a night.
But as many quickly found out, the Tribe had no plans of trying to put Miller in a nice, neat little reliever tool box, prepared to use the lefty only when the manager’s book saw fit. Paying that price, they were going to get the most out of one of baseball’s most valuable weapons.
And they have. In fact, some think Francona’s willingness to use Miller anywhere from the fifth to the ninth inning is revolutionizing the game. Maybe that’s going a little too far. But then again…
Miller entered in the seventh inning, relieving Kluber with one down in the frame, prepared to face the top of the Jays lineup. But Toronto didn’t stand much of a chance, as five of the six batters Miller faced — he gave up a hit to Josh Donaldson in the eighth — struck out swinging or looking.
And as the lanky southpaw is prone to do, he left a number of hitters shaking their heads, yelling at the umpire or in complete disbelief. Miller’s list of victims on Friday night included Darwin Barney, Melvin Upton Jr., Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Russell Martin.
All five of the strikeouts came on Miller’s tantalizing slider. Two of the punchies were of the called-third variety. And as for Toronto’s reward for Miller’s exit after a 31-pitch, 1 2/3 inning-effort? Cody Allen entered in the ninth and locked the Jays down for three more outs, recording a strikeout and a pair of groundouts to close out the victory.
“That’s why we got him,” Francona said of Miller. “And we intend to use him. But like we said before the game, you can’t use him then if you don’t have somebody behind him. And that need to be one of our strengths if we get where we want to go.”
3. SHOWING OFF THE LEATHER
One of the most underrated portions of the Indians in 2016 was a solid defense, which rated highly in the metrics and certainly passed the eye test. Lindor’s addition to the infield last season served as a catalyst for better play, but Cleveland hasn’t just been getting strong defense at shortstop.
Jose Ramirez made a handful of key plays at third base, particuarly in Game 3 of the sweep of the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS. Mike Napoli made a diving stop in Game 2 of the same series.
And then on Friday night, Jason Kipnis got in on the act with a tremendous diving stop, ranging to his left to take a hit away from center fielder Kevin Pillar at a key point in Game 1.
If Kipnis had not come up with the ball ticketed for right field in the fourth inning, Saunders would have likely motored to third and Kluber would have been back in hot water for the fourth consecutive inning.
But the second baseman showed tremendous range to his left and got an excellent jump on the hard-hit ball, snagging the grounder, jumping to his feet and getting Pillar by a half step at first.
“We anticipate something to where the percentages say it’s going to go,” Kipnis said. “It’s not always going to go that way, but I was leaning that way and I got a good jump on it.”
Kipnis’ work at second base flew a little under the radar in 2016, but the infielder turned in the best defensive season of his career in both defensive runs saved (4) and UZR/150 (6.3).
Kluber has certainly benefited from the improved play behind him, and the ace certainly appreciates the effort of his strong defensive infield.
“It’s a huge relief, lift, whatever you want to call it,” Kluber said. “Knowing that pretty much if they put the ball on the ground in the infield, it’s an out.”