CLEVELAND -- As Andrew Miller jogged to the mound on a recent September night, Josh Donaldson was at the far end of the Indians' dugout alongside manager Terry Francona. Images of Miller's devastating pitches during the American League Championship Series two years ago flooded Donaldson's mind.
The Indians' new third baseman turned to Francona.
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"I was like, 'You know, I still have flashbacks of Miller punching me out with that slider,'" Donaldson said with a shake of his head. "It's not pretty."
Miller was a monster during that postseason in 2016, when he picked up Most Valuable Player Award honors in the ALCS against the Blue Jays and hoisted Cleveland's injury-ravaged pitching staff on his back for a climb to the World Series. The big lefty chewed up hitters and spit out multi-inning outings, and then closer Cody Allen would enter to slam the door on defeated lineups.
The Cubs got in the way of World Series glory, but there was no denying how critical Miller and Allen were in helping the Indians get close enough to even imagine a parade along E. 9th St. Two years later, the duo remains important for the Tribe's chances in October, but both Miller and Allen have endured trials throughout a turbulent season in the Cleveland bullpen.
"I don't think we ever really put it all together this year," Miller said. "The idea is to put it together at the right time, and I think we're capable of it. It's just one of those things that, on my own shoulders, I'm looking forward to it. I think I'm ready for it, and I think if I pitch like I'm capable of and like I've done lately, I can be an important part of this."
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That is the hope, but the Indians are building some contingency plans into their roster for the AL Division Series against the Astros. Miller and Allen will remain a focal point in the bullpen, but Cleveland can also lean on All-Star lefty Brad Hand. For the first couple of games, the Indians also plan on having right-hander Trevor Bauer -- an AL Cy Young Award contender for most of this regular season -- available as a multi-inning leverage arm.
Bauer and rookie starter Shane Bieber will both be on call as relievers early in the series, and then they will be the options to start Game 4 (if necessary). Should the series go the distance, Carlos Carrasco (starting Game 2 on Saturday) might also be made available as a late-inning leverage arm.
"We're trying to make our bullpen thicker, bigger," Francona said.
Over the past two postseasons combined, Francona has leaned on his relievers for 91 1/3 innings, compared to 89 2/3 innings from starting pitchers. Cleveland's bullpen has posted a 2.07 ERA in those innings, which include 43 1/3 out of Miller and Allen. In the 2016 postseason, that duo combined to allow only three earned runs in 33 innings, piling 54 strikeouts against 10 walks.
Miller set single-postseason records for consecutive multi-inning outings (10), strikeouts (30) and innings pitched (19 1/3). Allen spun 13 2/3 innings that October with zero runs allowed.
"I remember facing them in the playoffs," said Donaldson, who was with the Blue Jays in 2016. "I know what they're capable of doing. I know how dominant they can be."
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This season has been a struggle for the pair of relievers, though.
The 33-year-old Miller had three separate stints on the disabled list for hamstring, knee and shoulder issues. His 4.24 ERA was his highest in a season since 2011, and the 34 innings were his fewest since 2013. Also, his fastball on the year dipped to an average velocity of 93 mph (down from 94.1 mph in '17, per Statcast™).
Throughout the campaign, Cleveland's goal was to gear Miller up for October. In his first nine appearances off the DL in September, he looked sharp, striking out 11, walking two and turning in a 2.89 ERA over 9 1/3 innings. During his final appearance of the regular season on Sept. 29, however, Miller was charged with four runs on five hits in two-thirds of an inning.
"It's been, for me personally, a little bit of a grind this year," Miller said. "But, I feel like everything's kind of heading in the right direction."
Allen has been the picture of consistency in his tenure with the Tribe, averaging 72 games and 69 innings across the 2013-17 seasons, during which he posted a 2.59 ERA. This year, the 29-year-old closer set the franchise's all-time saves record for a career (149), but he did so while posting a career-worst ERA (4.70), walk rate (4.4 per nine innings) and strikeout rate (10.7 per nine).
Like Miller, Allen had a promising showing down the stretch (10 1/3 scoreless innings between Aug. 30-Sept. 26) derailed in his final outings of the year. In his last two regular-season appearances combined, he was charged with six runs on five hits and two walks over two-thirds of an inning.
"Each season has its own challenges," Allen said. "I know in the past I've had a bad month here, a bad month here, a bad couple weeks here, but I've been able to right the ship for the majority of the season. This year's the first time that hasn't really happened. It's just kind of been turbulence, a little bit of issues, and then just sometimes it's just bad luck. Stuff happens."
For Miller and Allen, October presents a clean slate of sorts, a chance to show they can still be the overpowering arms who intimidated hitters in playoffs past.
"The postseason is a completely different animal," Allen said. "It doesn't go on the back of your baseball card. So, you just go pitch."