Francona bucks trend with 'pen in Game 1 win

Tribe skipper turns to dominant Miller in fifth, closer Allen in eighth

October 7th, 2016

CLEVELAND -- Buck Showalter.

There. You knew the name was going to be brought up eventually, so let's just get it right out of the way.

This 2016 postseason began with the Orioles losing the American League Wild Card Game to the Blue Jays in 11 innings without using Zach Britton, who was coming off one of the great relief seasons in history, and so Showalter's uncharacteristically questionable bullpen management is a topic that's going to be broached in plenty of postgame copy in the coming days and weeks. You certainly could not watch the Indians' 5-4 victory over the Red Sox in Game 1 of their AL Division Series at Progressive Field on Thursday night without thinking about the Showalter situation and how much Terry Francona's management of this game contrasted that of the Baltimore skipper.

:: ALDS: Red Sox vs. Indians coverage ::

"Nobody ever said you had to be conventional to win," Francona would say afterward.

Indeed, Francona simply bucked (or is it Bucked?) tradition to get this win -- one that came much to the surprise of the many, many insiders, analysts, etc., who assumed the Tribe was toast when two-fifths of its once-vaunted rotation succumbed to late-season injury.

But here's the thing: Around the time the Indians lost one signature strength, they gained another. The bullpen, beefed up by the farm system-shaking July 31 swap for , is this club's new operational advantage.

And if Game 1 is any indication whatsoever, it just might be the X-factor that can X out a loaded Boston squad.

We sent a lot of love the way of the Royals' relievers in their title run last year. So why aren't more people giving love to this Tribe 'pen?

On Thursday night, it was six outs from Miller spread across three innings. And though made it interesting with the solo shot that made it 5-4 in the eighth, reliever racked up the second five-out save of his career in the second career postseason appearance.

"We kind of knew," said Allen, "there might be a game or two throughout October where we have to do that."

So they got that right out of the way, too.

"That's why they won this game," Red Sox second baseman said. "They went to their power arms right away and got it done."

Perhaps that was predictable. , we knew, was a wild card in this game, one equally capable of pitching the Indians into the eighth or getting yanked in the third. But Francona's early hook with Bauer wasn't attributable to Bauer getting totally knocked around. At one point, in fact, Bauer seemed to be settling into a pattern of high heat and deuces in the dirt that were working well for him.

But when Bauer gave up a solo shot to (and if you had Boston's blasts coming from Leon, and Holt, stop reading and run to your nearest casino) to make it 4-3 in the top of the fifth, Francona called for the Bauer outage, which wasn't terribly surprising.

What was surprising -- at least to those unfamiliar with how Miller Time works in Cleveland -- was who replaced Bauer.

Miller has been a game-changer for the Tribe not just because he's an 8-foot-7 (this is a rough estimate) lefty with a slider that melts bats, hearts and souls but because of Francona's progressive use of him. Miller made 26 regular-season appearances for his new club, and nine of them began in the sixth or seventh innings, not the eighth or ninth.

Francona pitched his best reliever in what he considered to be the biggest spots, an all-too-unusual concept aided by Miller's anything-goes attitude, the late-season playoff push and, yes, the financial security that prevents Miller from needing to chase every last save. (When he came out for the seventh after finishing the fifth and sixth, they should have put a sign on the giant scoreboard reading, "This inning is brought to you by Andrew Miller's four-year, $36 million contract.")

"Everyone wants to talk about the Royals' [bullpen] the last few years," Miller said. "I saw what Boston did in '13. I was part of Baltimore in '14. Maybe as more and more stats come out, we realize there's bigger moments in the game than the eighth and ninth inning, and that can be appreciated."

Late in the season, I asked Francona, "What's the earliest you would bring Miller into a game?"

His answer, in so many words, amounted to, "Conception."

"I don't think there needs to be any fixed [spot]," he said. "I don't want to lose, but, if I had to, I'd rather pitch our guys and then, if it didn't reach, it didn't reach."

This was a thought that felt prophetic when we saw what happened (or, I guess, what didn't happen) in Toronto on Tuesday night. Showalter has also been progressive with his 'pen usage in the past, which is what made Tuesday's events so surprising.

Anyway, Francona managed Game 1 as if it were he, not Showalter, in the one-and-done, and you could understand the urgency. The Indians swiped home-field advantage in this series in the final weekend of the regular season, and it meant enough to them that they were crowded around the TVs in the visiting clubhouse in Kansas City on Sunday evening and going wild when Toronto topped Boston to ensure them of that edge ("It was like rooting for the guys on your fantasy football team in a sports bar," one player recalled).

Protecting that home-field edge should matter to the Indians, because their home/road splits are drastic and Fenway's its own animal. The Indians knew they could take an inning-by-inning approach to this game, and then they'd have their staff ace, , working on 10 days' rest for Game 2. If the Klubot can give them length, the effects of asking so much of Miller and Allen in this game will be easily washed away by Saturday's off-day.

In Game 1, Francona simply didn't shy from giving the ball to his best guys. It was a night that made you think about Showalter and Britton. Mostly, though, it was a night that made you wonder if the Indians' biggest advantage in this series is the 'pen.

Or more accurately, the guy managing it.

Top four relievers combined stats

Check out these numbers our research friends at MLB Network dug up

2016 Indians

Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw,

ERA 2.16

FIP 2.78

K/9 10.8

WHIP 0.95

Opp. AVG .192

GB% 54.6

RA9-WAR 8.6

2015 Royals

, , ,

ERA 2.29

FIP 3.15

K/9 8.9

WHIP 1.02

Opp. AVG .197

GB% 44.2

RA9-WAR 7.5