By Jonathan Peterlin
CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Baseball elitists like to often boast on how they’d prefer a pitching duel over an offensive onslaught any day of the week.
There’s something ingrained into our primitive baseball mindset that a pitcher showing pure domination over the hitter is baseball at its best. I’ve always subscribed to this notion, and in many cases still do.
Finding pitchers in their prime like a Pedro Martinez in the late 90’s or even a more fleeting stretch of a young Kerry Wood can bring delight. Game one of the ALCS wasn’t that for either side, rather a flurry of web gems as both teams kept their starters afloat bailing them out one defensive play after another.
The former Cy Young winner in Corey Kluber looked shaky at best in the beginning. Lacking control and grinding out three innings where he got out of two men on base in each. Toronto’s Marco Estrada looked formidable, and outside of a ball Francisco Lindor crushed, had his pitches working, but was nothing near dominant.
Effective would be the better word.
Jason Kipnis on Estrada after the game: “His change up, even if you pick it up that ball still never gets there. He was around the zone. He’s like our Tomlin, he’ll throw strikes and get outs.”
More importantly though, he depended on one of the underrated story lines entering the series, both these teams bring elite defenses into the equation.
Disclaimer: Defensive metrics still have a long way to go.
They’re streaky within most players and can fluctuate ways offensive performances just don’t. That said, the Indians and the Blue Jays entered the game ranked first and second in AL run prevention.
Both boast multiple plus defenders and sit in the top 5 in the AL in UZR and top 10 in baseball in UZR/150 which attempts to calculate each fielder’s defensive contribution in theoretical runs above or below an average fielder at their position given each year and league.
Neither starter was overpowering in the K department with Kluber netting 6 and Estrada matching. They relied on stellar defensive plays to save them. Whether that was a critical Troy Tulowitzki spin move double play that showed why he’s won five gold gloves or Kluber helping himself out turning a bare handed bunt snare into an out that could’ve gone as a hit.
It was back and forth with the shift being played as it’s drawn up as well.
Lindor showcased his advanced preparations in nabbing a ball just to the right of second base on a Carrera hit ball in the top of the fifth. Toronto would counter with the substituted Ryan Goins shifted perfectly to field a Carlos Santana liner in the sixth.
“A lot of times you hear defense wins championships and that’s the big thing they can rely on is that they don’t give teams extra outs or mistakes that can lead to extra runs,” Kipnis said. “We know they’re a great defensive team, outstanding at what they do. And we’re pretty confident on the guys on our side.”
The TV broadcast boasted the fact that both teams entered scoring more runs per game in the postseason than the rest of the eight teams in the LDS field. We expected to hear about the offensive onslaughts to be had of an Indians team who scored the second most runs this season in the AL and a Blue Jays team that ranked fifth, but had relatively the same roster that topped baseball in that category last year.
A low scoring game is expected in Game 1 of the ALCS as it typically showcases the teams’ top pitchers.
The Indians had theirs on the bump while Toronto didn’t, but the starters were merely a footnote to a game played outside of the three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks, home runs) that don’t involve the defensive team.
As I walked around the clubhouse after the game, each reporter was doing their jobs as mandated. They asked about Lindor’s home run and the growth he’s had as a young phenom garnering all the accolades he deserves.
We love the home run, it’s what gets showed across our screens each morning and is a staple of the highlight package. It’s easily quantifiable and can’t be ignored. The defense in the game was almost taboo, but something each team executed perfectly tonight, but then again we should’ve seen that coming.
What’s expected is never heralded, but the status quo in an elite defensive game is what got the Indians a game one victory and the series lead entering Game 2.