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Miller, bullpen set to play major role for USA

Relievers' usage likely determined by WBC '17 pitch counts
MLB.com @philgrogers

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When last seen on the main stage, Andrew Miller was a leading man for an Indians team that did everything except win the World Series. He's a key piece of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, and Jim Leyland is thrilled to have him.

But the calendar says this is March, not October, and nobody knows that better than Leyland.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When last seen on the main stage, Andrew Miller was a leading man for an Indians team that did everything except win the World Series. He's a key piece of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, and Jim Leyland is thrilled to have him.

But the calendar says this is March, not October, and nobody knows that better than Leyland.

Leyland brought Miller in to work in the first of two exhibition games for Team USA, which begins pool play in the Classic on Friday against Colombia (6 p.m. ET, live on MLB.TV and MLB Network). But Miller was back in the dugout in about the time it took him to warm up, facing only four batters in the second inning of a game the Twins won, 3-2, at the CenturyLink Sports Complex.

Lefty Craig Breslow, a longtime friend of Miller's who is attempting to win a job with the Twins, shut down a ninth-inning rally by retiring Daniel Murphy, Christian Yelich and Alex Bregman in order to strand the potential tying run at third base. The highlight of the game was Byron Buxton's catch crashing into the center-field fence to rob Adam Jones, his center-field counterpart on Team USA.

Video: USA@MIN: Buxton absorbs wall crash for gorgeous catch

"We had a chance right there at the end," Leyland said. "It was good. Guys got their work in. That's what we're looking for, especially the pitchers."

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

Leyland hasn't tipped his hand on how he'll use the nine-man bullpen he's taking to Marlins Park for Pool C play against the Dominican Republic, Canada and Colombia. But more than anyone, it's Miller who jumps off the roster sheet and grabs your attention, for a variety of reasons.

Miller stands 6-foot-7, making him the tallest in the team picture (as usual). He has one of baseball's most notorious sliders, producing a .170 average with it last season (and throwing it 60 percent of the time). And, as already noted, Miller was a beast in the postseason, working more innings (19 1/3) than any Cleveland pitcher except Corey Kluber.

Miller can be a trump card for a manager, entering early and lasting two or more innings if needed, or blowing away a dangerous left-handed hitter in the ninth inning. But he's not ready to let the big dog eat.

"I don't think in the beginning anybody's ready for that,'' Miller said. "The starters have had a couple outings of multiple innings, but as relievers, we're not going an inning-plus or back-to-back days, anything like that, until towards the end of Spring Training. Certainly they want to take care of us, send us back in good shape. There's extra intensity playing in games like this, but in the beginning, they're going to protect us from stuff like that.''

The rules for WBC 2017 in the first round allow pitchers to throw as many as 49 pitches and come back with one day's rest or as many as 29 pitches and work the following day. But Leyland isn't going to push Miller or any of his relievers.

"We'll watch that very carefully,'' Leyland said. "With this format, this responsibility, I don't believe in the first round we'll go back to back.''

Video: Team USA is getting ready for the Classic

Leyland used Luke Gregerson, Jake McGee, Pat Neshek, David Robertson and Nate Jones against the Twins, then turned to Minnesota pitchers to fill out his staff. He said Boston will provide all the pitchers when Team USA meets the Red Sox on Thursday so his staff will be fresh for the Classic opener Friday.

Jones, a White Sox setup man who could move into a closer role if Robertson were to be traded, was electrifying in his inning. He struck out the side in the fifth, mixing up his high-90s heaters and power sliders to blow away Jorge Polanco, Buxton and Joe Mauer.

"Oh, boy,'' Leyland said. "I got worried about [Jones] amping it up early. He was very impressive.''

Team USA's bullpen also includes Rangers closer Sam Dyson and the Yankees' Tyler Clippard. Leyland loves the options it gives him, saying no one has been designated as the closer.

"No, not really,'' he said. "I think we'll just wait and see how it plays out -- who the opponent is, who's coming up, who's available, did we use somebody already? You've got a lot of guys down there who have been closers at some point. We'll talk about it. We'll see what we think suits us best.''

You know Miller is never going to be far from their mind. After all, he yielded a major return when the Yankees traded him to the Indians last July, then delivered enough to justify the deal (which was headed by outfielder Clint Frazier and lefty Justus Sheffield).

Miller is thrilled to be reunited with Leyland, who was his first Major League manager after the Tigers drafted him with the sixth overall pick in 2006. But he's not just here to collect some terrific gear and a lifetime of memories. Miller wants to experience the celebration he was denied when the Cubs beat the Tribe in the 10th inning of Game 7.

"Win some games, win it all,'' Miller said. "We've got the talent. It's a tough task. There are some great teams out there. Obviously, the history of the event is the U.S. hasn't won it yet. We have our work cut out for us, but when you play something like this, the goal is to win.''

Team USA is on its way. The work of Miller, Jones and the rest of Leyland's bullpen will go a long way in determining its fate.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com and has covered Major League Baseball since 1984.

United States, Andrew Miller