CLEVELAND — It didn’t take Terry Francona long to reveal the tactics by which he intends to win this American League Divisional Series. The Indians’ manager did it early in his club’s 5–4 Game 1 victory over the Red Sox on Thursday night when in the top of the fifth inning, he unscrolled his battle plan and unabashedly held it aloft for the Red Sox and everyone else to see. With the Indians clinging to a 4–3 lead, and with their starter, Trevor Bauer, at just 78 pitches through 4 2/3 innings, Francona summoned Andrew Miller—his best reliever, he of the 98 mph fastball and 1.55 ERA—from the bullpen, with half the game still to be played. Yes, the skipper universally known as Tito seemed to be announcing. This is how it’s going to go.
The move instantly delighted progressive baseball thinkers, who disdain managers who conform to the convention that a team’s top reliever must only be used near the end of games, even if perilous conditions develop far earlier than that. It appeared as if the sport had undergone a nearly instant evolution. Orioles manager Buck Showalter’s widely panned decision to hold back his own relief ace, Zach Britton, for a save chance that never materialized in the wild-card game loss to the Blue Jays had come two evenings earlier, but now it seemed as if it had happened in a distant, backward era. There was a lot of truth to that perception. “Certain bullpens are being adjusted right now,” Miller would say. “As more stats come out we realize that there can be bigger moments than the eighth or ninth inning.”
So yes, Francona’s move was both bold and state of the art. More than that, though, it stemmed from his recognition of the specific reality faced by his team: that even though this was only Game 1, it already had nothing left to lose, and only one way forward.
The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948, but for much of this year it seemed as if they finally had the capacity to end that drought. Even though they endured nearly all of 2016 without their best hitter, the still-injured Michael Brantley, they played a swarming, emotionally charged style of offense that produced 777 runs, the second most in the American League. That offense was still intact, and on display, on Thursday, particularly in a fourth inning in which they hit three home runs in short order against Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, as their dugout crescendoed.
“Exciting,” said second baseman Jason Kipnis of the first homer, by catcher Roberto Perez.
“Getting nuts,” Kipnis said of the second, his own.
“Losing it,” he said of the third, shortstop Francisco Lindor’s.
The key to Cleveland’s regular season success, though, was its pitching staff—particularly its trio of ace-caliber starters, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar. Cruelly, though, they lost Carrasco and Salazar to injury in recent weeks, leaving them shorthanded to face the Red Sox, who are not just heavily favored but at full strength.
So what is the manager of a club that hasn’t won in 67 years, and whose rotation has been crippled, to do? If he is a good one—and Francona, by any measure, is—he thinks unconventionally, because he has to. “Nobody ever said you have to be conventional to win,” Francona said.
On Thursday night, Francona’s avant-garde, if necessity-born, thinking led him not just to call on Miller early, but to ride him for two scoreless innings in which he delivered 40 pitches, more than he’d thrown in any outing this year. And it led him to ask his closer, Cody Allen, to throw 40 himself, more than he had delivered in a game since 2013, to record the game’s final five outs (which Allen did, barely.) The last of those 40 offerings induced a check swing, which resulted in a questionably called third strike, from Dustin Pedroia, who with a man on first, represented Boston’s potential go-ahead run.
Neither reliever complained about his unusual workload, given the team’s circumstances, both specific and general. “The playoffs are a different animal,” Miller said. Even as they celebrated their Game 1 win, though, a question loomed over the proceedings: What happens tomorrow?
First pitch of Friday’s Game 2 was scheduled for less than 17 hours after Allen whiffed Pedroia. Though Miller, for one, insisted he will be available, but Francona admitted that his game plan would have to change. “You’re certainly not going to see the same exact way tomorrow,” he said. That was obvious from the moment he tapped Miller in the fifth inning on Thursday, at which time he also revealed the second element of his strategy to beat the Red Sox. It centers almost entirely on Kluber, who hasn’t pitched since Sept. 26 due to a quad strain.
Francona didn’t attempt to deceive anyone about that part of his plan after the game, nor about his intention to allow—and to require—the 2013 Cy Young winner to accumulate a pitch count far in excess of Bauer’s. “I was joking with Kluber and told him he’s on a tight 165–170 tomorrow,” he said exaggeratingly, but perhaps not by much. Here, then, was Francona’s blueprint all along: to win Game 1 at any cost, and then to rely on his last ace standing, who is also lined up to start Game 5, to win two of the next four.
It’s a risky strategy, one that could only be conceived by a manager of a team that has no other options. As the Red Sox discovered on Thursday, though, that is sometimes the most difficult type of opponent with which to contend. “We’ll find a way,” said Miller. The first phase of Francona’s gambit was a success. Now Boston knows what it will face next.