With the traditional “I’ll throw ‘em all” postseason attitude of Madison Bumgarner well known, and the recent emergence of Clayton Kershaw as starter/closer, it might be easy for a short-memoried person to forget that even your best starters aren’t usually equipped to pitch a ridiculous number of days in short succession. Corey Kluber had never pitched on three days' rest, and with Cleveland sitting on a 3-0 ALCS lead, some eyebrows might have gone up at Terry Francona’s decision to start his ace in the potentially decisive Game 4.
While it didn’t work out in the short term as a win for Cleveland, thanks to Kluber’s five innings of work they’re in a better place to win Game 5. Wait, how is that possible? They threw their ace and didn’t get a win? Yes, but in Game 3, all the best relievers available to Francona threw in relief of a bleeding Trevor Bauer, including the American League’s answer to Kershaw, Andrew Miller. With the cushion of wins Francona’s squad was sitting on, out of three potential outcomes, only one was totally negative.
In Scenario A, Kluber goes a full seven scoreless, the Cleveland bats go nuts, and everyone goes home to rest up for the Dodgers or the Cubs. Francona probably goes to, say, Dan Otero for the last couple innings, and doesn’t have to use either Ryan Merritt or Mike Clevinger, and it’s possible that Bauer’s finger heals before the World Series, eliminating the need to worry about this again.
In Scenario B, the totally negative scenario, Kluber gets beaten up in the second inning and requires another bullpen game. Even this isn’t horrible, though, since if the game is already out of reach, you just throw Clevinger and/or Bryan Shaw and hope you can get through while still giving your bullpen the rest day they need.
The third outcome, also known as “what actually happened,” ended up as a combination between the two options. Sure, Kluber only got through five, but he got through five, and if Toronto hadn’t been countering with the impressive arm of Aaron Sanchez (last seen giving up six runs to the Rangers, though his start prior to that had been exemplary) there’s a real possibility Cleveland wins the game anyway. Kluber’s five innings with two earned runs meant that Francona only had to go to three other pitchers, and the game might have been closer still if the manager hadn’t made the curious decision to intentionally walk Josh Donaldson to face Edwin Encarnacion.
After having to go to an 8.2-inning bullpen game on Monday night, Francona has set himself up to have his best relievers back to support his worst starter on Wednesday. Managerial decisions are a funny thing, especially in the postseason. We’re quick to assign blame and, particularly as an analytical community, quick to withhold credit.
For most of this series, Francona’s been the Twitter darling, fearlessly using whichever reliever is best at any given moment, rather than sticking to the regular season prescribed roles. He’s been using Miller in a way that most sabermetric types have been moaning about online since before moaning about baseball online was a thing. This isn’t a new thing with Francona, either, but he’s somehow stayed fairly underrated across the seasons.
Francona is in a position to take yet another unexpected team to the game’s highest level, and it isn’t because he’s stuck to doing the same things. Being a good manager takes flexibility, and the ability to change with the game, and as of right now, no one’s better at that than Terry Francona.
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