There was a wealth of strategic intrigue surrounding Game 1 of the World Series before it even began. Jon Lester started for the Cubs, so there was the now-familiar chatter about how the Indians planned to use his difficulty in controlling the running (if it can even be fairly called that) against him. Kyle Schwarber returned to the Cubs’ lineup after a sojourn of some six months, from an operating table to a grueling rehabilitation process to the Arizona Fall League, but there was some uncertainty as to how ready to return he really was, and where Joe Maddon could place him in his lineup in order to maximize Schwarber’s impact.
On the Indians’ side, there were the dual questions of how deep Terry Francona would let starter Corey Kluber pitch–knowing he’s possibly planning to bring his ace back on short rest for Game 4–and of how many outs he might get from Andrew Miller. We got answers to all of those questions, and some of the answers were even interesting. None had much impact on the final score of the game, as things turned out, because variance swamps everything in a short series, and sometimes “variance” is just a fancy word for “whichever team’s ninth-hitting, no-hit catcher happens to run into one with multiple runners on base, because they’re both going to get a chance.”
Because best-of-seven series titles are rarely awarded after a single game, though, let’s dig into what else we found out, and how the tactical elements of the game played out in Game 1. Firstly, with regard to Lester’s famous yips and the Indians’ eagerness to make him pay for them: nothing much came of it. Francisco Lindor spent most of the game on base, it seemed, but after successfully stealing second base in the first frame, he was caught trying to do the same in the third.
A few pitches before he actually took off, there was an awkward moment when Lindor started to break for second base while Lester still held the ball. The big lefty stepped off the rubber, but couldn’t bring himself to throw to first. Lindor recovered quickly, and it’s not clear that he would have been picked off even if Lester had gotten off a throw, but that was the one sign of weakness.
Perversely (or not), that sequence seemed almost to help Lester later. When Lindor took off, he failed to get a good jump, probably still having a hard time reading Lester, and now knowing he couldn’t simply take off and count on Lester to lift his leg and fire home. A quick delivery, an accurate throw, and a lightning-fast tag sent Lindor to the bench. That was all Cleveland really did in terms of pushing the issue against the Cubs’ ace. They learned what most teams who have set out to victimize Lester this season have: it just doesn’t pay off the way you want to believe it will. What did pay off for the Tribe was a tight early strike zone for their batters, and two big blasts by Perez.
As for Schwarber, Maddon slotted him fifth, behind the team’s usual top four of Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist. That turned out to be, if anything, too conservative. Schwarber fanned in the second inning, but then doubled, and when his spot in the order came up a third time, it was already the seventh, with Zobrist on first base and nobody out. Schwarber’s presence was enough to draw Francona out of the dugout, push Kluber out of the game, and bring Miller into a tough spot.
If that was at all the Cubs’ hoped-for effect, though, they should have batted Schwarber even higher, and moved up Francona’s decision point by an inning. As it was, Kluber exited after 88 pitches thrown. He should be fresh for Game 4, which is huge for Cleveland and a credit to both the pitcher–his command and control of his sinker were supernal–and his skipper. Francona has found a fine balance, for the most part, between fighting for every win within games and economizing to ensure he can make it through entire series, even when his pitching staff was thinner and less rested than it is now.
He’s having the best month of any skipper in these playoffs. On Tuesday night, though, he got a little aggressive with Miller. The best relief pitcher in baseball walked Schwarber–through little fault of his own; Schwarber worked a brilliant plate appearance in that clash of the titans–then gave up a single to Javier Baez that loaded the bases with nobody out. Then, however, he got pinch-hitter Willson Contreras to fly weakly to center, and struck out both Addison Russell and Ross to get out of the jam.
Contreras was batting for Chris Coghlan, who drew the start in right field over Jason Heyward and Jorge Soler in Game 1. That was the right move by Maddon. Since re-joining the Cubs in June, Coghlan has been healthy relatively rarely, but he’s been solid when available. He’s also left-handed, which was important with the cutter/slider-happy Kluber on the mound, and which made him a better fit for the ballpark (Progressive Field was the kindest park in baseball to left-handed batters this season, according to True Average) than other obvious options.
Moreover, Maddon could be reasonably sure he would be able to lift Coghlan in a spot just like this one, if need be, because of the DH and the Cubs’ choice to carry 14 position players on their roster. He also didn’t have to worry much about fly balls to right field, because the square footage out there in Cleveland is fairly small. Giving Contreras the first chance to come off the bench and hit was another good call by Maddon. He’s the best of the right-handed hitters on the club who don’t play every day. It just didn’t work. Miller is dominant, after all.
There was some consternation about the subsequent choice to let Ross bat for himself, only to replace him as the Cubs took the field. Soler might have been an option for that bases-loaded plate appearance, the counter-argument went. However, given the way Ross has hit lefties this season, the fact that Soler would have been coming off the bench cold, and Miller’s deceptiveness, Maddon’s chosen course is a perfectly defensible one. Those three outs came the hard way for Miller, but that’s what the Cubs do. They make elite relievers work into and out of dangerous situations. They make lesser such pitchers work into the same spots, but don’t let them out.
At that point, Miller probably ought to have been saved. Instead, Francona asked him for three more outs. He got them, too, despite a walk to Bryant and a hit by Zobrist. Still, at the end of the night, Miller had thrown nearly 50 pitches and faced 10 batters. Schwarber struck out to end the threat in the eighth, but only because Miller was able to put a sharp, biting slider right behind his sweeping monster in a two-strike situation. Lacking a matchup lefty, Francona sometimes does this sort of thing. What he should have done, though, given the tough inning Miller had just endured, was probably to either go to Cody Allen for six outs or patch together the eighth with Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero.
Maybe his departure in choice comes down to a different reading of tomorrow’s forecast. MLB moved up game time to 7:08 PM ET because rain is in the offing. (No word on whether they’ll also trim down the postseason’s preposterous ad windows in order to get the game played in under four hours. Probably a non-starter though.) If that game goes ahead as planned, Miller is probably unavailable tomorrow. In that case, because this game was never that gravely in doubt and considering Francona’s wealth of good alternatives, asking a second inning of his relief ace might have been more than the moment demanded.
If, however, Francona believes the rain will come early and postpone the game (it takes a monsoon to wash out a World Series game these days, but it’s not impossible), this was a stroke of brilliance—a rally-stopper that perfectly restrained an offense that can get feisty in the late innings, even on nights when they all seem to be struggling. At any rate, save that one bizarre moment, Francona managed Game 1 well. So did his counterpart.
Miller might be a bit depleted when needed later in this series, but for the most part, both skippers gave their charges chances to make big plays, and kept them pretty well aligned for the rest of this clash.
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