It's easy to make too much of a single move in a postseason game. Taking a pitcher out one batter too late or sending a runner home on a long fly can have huge consequences. But if we step back and breathe deeply, we know a baseball game is too long, with too many moving parts, to ever truly be decided by any single event. Still, Thursday evening’s Red Sox-Indians game, the first of a five-game set, offered an easily graspable handle for those looking to turn that narrative crank.
It also offered a clear rebuttal to Buck Showalter’s highly-questionable choice during Tuesday’s Wild Card game to save Super Closer and Cy Young candidate Zach Britton for a save situation that, at least in part due to his very decision, never arrived. It’s not apples to apples, but Showalter’s refusal to use Britton because he might need him later stood in stark contrast–a black hole in the sun kind of contrast–to Terry Francona’s bullpen usage, and, to only a slightly lesser extent, John Farrell’s.
Francona, however, was the one saddled with a tattered rotation due to late-season injuries and forced to start Trevor Bauer in Game 1. Bauer is a perfectly serviceable starter, but was a clear fourth in Cleveland’s starter hierarchy as recently as a month ago. The fact that he put up a 6.39 ERA over the season’s last month didn’t help his stock, and yet there he was, standing on the mound to start a playoff series. He wasn’t the best, but the best Cleveland could do.
To his undying credit, Francona recognized this, grabbing Bauer off the mound with two outs in the top of the fifth after Boston had brought Cleveland’s lead back down to one. Bauer wasn’t faltering particularly, having retired the previous two batters, but the batter before that had homered. It was Boston’s second homer off Bauer. So, when faced with losing the platoon advantage in the fifth inning, Francona went to his bullpen as Bauer completed the Boston batting order for the second time.
Perhaps in his spot Showalter would have put in some lesser reliever. Certainly the drooling caricature of Showalter on Twitter would have, but Francona isn’t some comic creation of social media, nor is he tied to baseball’s save mores in a playoff game. Instead he went for the kill, bringing in Andrew Miller. Miller began the season with the Yankees and in the 44 games he pitched for them, only once did he see action before the eighth inning, that one time being the seventh inning. Since Cleveland acquired Miller at the deadline, Francona had used him more liberally in the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth, and often for more than what has become the traditional single inning.
FCleveland is throwing Corey Kluber in Game 2, so winning Thursday would give Cleveland a good chance to go up 2-0 in a series where winning three games is all you need. Up 4-3 in the top of the fifth, Francona sensed a win and went for it. He wound up using Miller for two innings and Cody Allen for 1.2 innings, with a brief bridge between the two from Bryan Shaw. Bluntly, this was a Masters course in winning a playoff game, one both Showalters would do well to, at minimum, audit. You worry about tomorrow’s problems tomorrow. Maybe Kluber won’t have it and Cleveland gets blown out. Maybe he throws a complete-game shutout. There are any number of possible outcomes that don’t require Andrew Miller throwing two innings and Cody Allen throwing almost that many. So, when faced with a situation that did require that, Francona didn’t wait for the unknown.
The funny part was Miller started out badly. He fell behind Brock Holt and then, because this was Brock Holt, he threw one across the plate in a 3-1 count, but because this was playoff baseball, Holt doubled. It’s easy to see that Miller is insanely good, but I sometimes forget that major-league hitters are incredible too. Then Miller walked Mookie Betts. This set up drama with two runners on David Ortiz at the plate, but Miller struck Ortiz out on a filthy slider off the plate.
Miller was better after that with Holt’s about the only ball Boston hitters were able to square up off him. Miller missed low and in and low and away a fair bit, but he never missed over the plate. It might not have mattered if he had, as 97 mph pitches coming from the angle Miller throws from can be difficult to barrel even when they are centrally located, but Miller didn’t give Boston a chance. He pumped slider after slider after slider. Sixty percent of his pitches were benders. This bought Cleveland from a 4-3 lead in the fifth to a 5-3 lead with two outs in the seventh.
I’ve been singing Francona’s praises for this, and it’s remarkable especially in light of Showalter, but it’s not the first time he’s done this. Down 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS, Francona pulled Derek Lowe in the sixth inning and put in closer Keith Foulke with one down in the seventh. Foulke pitched 2.2 innings of scoreless ball, keeping Francona’s Red Sox within one run long enough that he was still technically in the game when Kevin Millar walked in the ninth, setting up Dave Roberts' famous steal of second and Bill Mueller’s game-tying single. Francona has been at this a long time since, but last night was yet another example showing that he gets leverage maybe more than any manager in baseball.
Going back to Bauer for a moment, though: he was hardly outstanding, but he did manage to avoid walking anyone. Do you know how many times Bauer managed that this season? Twice. Now ask me how many of those came as a starter. None! Bauer started 29 games for Cleveland this season, including last night, and that was the first time he avoided walking a batter. This would matter, as the Red Sox's six hits off him included three doubles and two home runs. Any extra batters on base during any of those at-bats would have likely scored, but Bauer avoided the free base by staying in the zone with most of his pitches, throwing 52 of 78 for strikes (67 percent).
Of particular note was his curveball, which he threw for a strike a staggering 70 percent of the time, 13 percent higher than he has this season. It was probably that pitch more than any other that kept the Red Sox's bats at bay. The Red Sox needed to get and hold the lead from Bauer before Francona could put Miller and Allen into the game, but Bauer kept them from doing that. He didn’t pitch brilliantly but he was good enough. But good enough is relative, right? Bauer’s ERA for last night’s game was 5.79, which isn’t anything to tattoo on your lower back. However, the reason that 5.79 was good enough was Rick Porcello had his poorest start since 2015.
Porcello started 33 games for Boston this season and in only one of them did he allow five earned runs. Of course, I snuck "earned" runs in there, so it might sound like I’m cheating. Perhaps he had a stinker or two that came following an error with two outs. So lets drop the “earned” part. In 30 of 33 starts Porcello held the opponent to fewer than five runs of any kind. So you see how anomalous this start was for him. And yet it happened, and it happened almost entirely in the third inning, when Cleveland hit three home runs back-to-back-to-back. Porcello didn’t walk any batters either, but his problems were of command not control.
Porcello has succeeded this season by keeping his sinker down, his fastball up, and his curve whatever the opposite of flat is. Last night though the sinker stayed up. Jose Ramirez’s double in the second came on a high sinker, as did Jason Kipnis’ homer in the third. But that wasn’t the only pitch he had trouble commanding. Roberto Perez’s two hits both came on pitches up in the zone, a fastball and a changeup. Unlike his pal Francona, Farrell doesn’t have Miller, but in some ways that made his pulling Porcello, a Cy Young candidate, before the fifth inning all the more daring a decision. It worked, though. If Boston advances in this postseason they may find having Drew Pomeranz coming out of the bullpen a luxury in the mold of Miller.
Pomeranz’s fastball played up out of the pen and he struck out five in 2.1 innings. In fact, the Red Sox's pen held Cleveland to one run over 4.2 innings while Cleveland’s pen held Boston to one run over 4.1 innings. The difference was, well, it was a lot of things. It was Bauer’s lack of walks, Porcello’s lack of command, the brilliance of Miller and Allen, and Francona’s lack of adhesion to the unwritten rules of the save, but it was also a play way back in the first inning. The Red Sox thought they’d taken a 2-0 lead, and in fact they had. But Cleveland challenged a safe call at home plate and it was determined that, following Hanley Ramirez’s double, Holt had been tagged on the leg before his hand had touched the plate.
I’ve just now watched the replay a billion times and I haven’t seen any angle that tells me the call on the field of safe was wrong. Sure, sometimes from some angles Holt looks out, but sometimes from some angles he looks safe. But the New York offices saw it more clearly than I, because they reversed the call, taking a Red Sox run off the board (“You can take it off the boooooard YES!”) and ending the inning. Even with that, it was only the first inning, and if there is ever a time to lose a run, that’s it, when you have the maximum outs possible remaining to make up for it. The real difference in this game was Francona and his willingness to go and get Miller in the fifth and ride him to the seventh.
Sure, Bauer could have buckled down and shut out the top-scoring offense in baseball for two or three more innings, and maybe a lesser manager would have allowed him to try. Or maybe that lesser manager would have saved Miller for a higher-leverage spot closer to the end of the game and trusted a lesser reliever to pitch the fifth, sixth, and seventh. But the likelihood was that Boston would have pushed across a run or two or seven with the benefit of seeing Bauer a third time, combined with his rising pitch count. Boston would have likely chewed and swallowed a lesser reliever as well, because this is the playoffs and that’s what Boston’s offense does: commit acts of cannibalism. Francona wasn’t waiting around for one of his relievers to get eaten and in large part because of that Cleveland enjoys a 1-0 series lead.
If there is a silver lining for Boston it’s that this was just the first game. Further, Cleveland’s two big bullpen weapons were forced to throw a combined 80 pitches to secure the one-run win. Game 2 is less than 24 hours away, so pushing both Miller and Allen like that again will be difficult, and indeed it wouldn’t be surprising if one or both weren’t available. The silver lining for Cleveland isn’t really a lining at all. It’s full-blown real silver and it’s a one-game lead in a best-of-five series. And with Kluber on the mound in Game 2 they might not have to use either guy anyway. That’s a concept the Twitter caricature Buck Showalter would do well to acclimate himself with.
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