HOUSTON -- It was not that long ago that the image of Andrew Miller emerging from the bullpen in October was an intimidating one for opposing hitters. Two years ago, the Indians' relief ace hoisted his team's injury-riddled pitching staff on his back and led Cleveland to an American League pennant.
This year has been a different story. When Miller walked across the Minute Maid Park infield en route to the mound on Saturday, the tall lefty carried with him baggage from this trying season. And in a critical sixth inning, Miller's trials persisted at the worst possible time against the Astros, sending the Tribe to a 3-1 loss in Game 2 of the AL Division Series.
"That's my spot to come in," Miller said. "I came in, I wasn't good, I wasn't effective and I blew the game for us."
:: ALDS schedule and results ::
Now the AL Central champions are staring at an 0-2 hole in this best-of-five series, which continues with Game 3 on Monday at Progressive Field. In a way, the Indians can look to last year's early October exit for an ounce of inspiration. Cleveland had a 2-0 lead on the Yankees, who then took the next three games.
In the history of five-game series using the 2-2-1 format, teams that have won Games 1 and 2 at home have gone on to win the series 89 percent (24 of 27) of the time. Last October's Cleveland squad -- a team that won 102 games and set an AL record with a 22-game winning streak -- was one of the exceptions.
"We just need to find a way to win Monday," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I'm guessing that Houston will enjoy their off-day more than we will. Other than that, show up on Monday and play for our baseball life."
Miller, who allowed a momentum-swinging two-run double to Marwin Gonzalez, was not the only complicating factor. Astros starter Gerrit Cole piled up a dozen strikeouts -- the most in a playoff game vs. Cleveland since Mike Mussina's 15 in Game 3 of the 1997 AL Championship Series -- across seven overpowering innings.
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Cole's lone lapse came in the form of a stadium-hushing homer from Francisco Lindor. Given the way Cleveland's Carlos Carrasco was dealing, it felt as though that slim 1-0 advantage might have been enough.
"That's a lot to ask to make that hold up," Francona said.
Jose Altuve opened the sixth with a dribbler up the third-base line, where the roller stayed fair for an infield single against Carrasco. Altuve tripped out of the box and limped through the bag, but he stayed in, eliciting an approving roar from his audience. Carrasco then issued a walk to Alex Bregman before inducing a flyout to left off the bat of Yuli Gurriel.
At that juncture, Francona reverted to a familiar formula, summoning Miller from the bullpen in an effort to apply the tourniquet.
Carrasco did not question his manager's decision.
"He's the manager. He made the right decision," Carrasco said. "There's nothing I can do about that. Yeah, I just want to continue to pitch, but if that's the call from Tito, I respect that."
In 2016, Miller set single-postseason relief records for consecutive multi-inning outings (10), innings (19 1/3) and strikeouts (30), taking home the ALCS Most Valuable Player Award for his work against Toronto. He was strong again in last year's ALDS, too. This season, though, Miller endured three stints on the DL, posted a 4.24 ERA and logged his fewest innings (34) since 2013.
"Honestly, I feel like I was throwing the ball well coming into this," Miller said. "Today is what matters, and I didn't do a good job today."
Francona said he wanted Miller for a couple of reasons. First, Gonzalez had a single in each of his first two at-bats against Carrasco. The manager also liked Miller's history against Gonzalez, who was 1-for-8 with six strikeouts in his career against the lefty.
"We wanted Andrew," Francona said. "That's what we wanted right there."
Miller's second pitch to Gonzalez was an up-and-away heater, which the Astros outfielder slashed into the right-field corner. Altuve scored easily from second and Bregman raced around from first -- helped by the fact that right fielder Melky Cabrera bobbled the ball and had to retrieve it at the base of the wall. Minute Maid Park trembled as Houston grabbed a 2-1 lead.
Both runs were charged to Carrasco, who worked 5 1/3 innings and was hung with a hard-luck loss.
Miller followed with a walk to Carlos Correa and then, during the next battle with Tyler White, the left-hander pulled a slider errantly behind the batter for a wild pitch. Both runners moved up 90 feet, prompting the reliever to intentionally walk White to load the bases. After Houston sent Evan Gattis in as a pinch-hitter, Francona pulled the plug on Miller's outing.
Trevor Bauer took over and escaped the jam with a popout (Gattis) and a strikeout (Martin Maldonado), flexing and letting out a howl as he headed off the field. One inning later, though, Bauer surrendered a solo shot to Bregman to increase Cleveland's deficit, magnifying the damage done during the ill-fated sixth inning.
Now the Indians have to hope that the Astros get a taste of what Cleveland experienced in the ALDS a year ago.
"It might be a little unfortunate that we know it can be done," Miller said. "We have a day to regroup. That's how I'm looking at it. I have a day to regroup and then I'll be in and ready to succeed in the same spot. And I think these guys, we're not giving up just yet."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Donaldson's decision: It was unclear whether Altuve's roller up the third-base line in the sixth would have crossed the chalk line, but Josh Donaldson opted to pluck the ball from the ground. Cleveland's third baseman said he did so because he noticed Altuve's stumble out of the box. While the Astros second baseman may have been safe regardless, Donaldson's throw sailed wildly beyond first, helping set up the rally.
"He didn't get out of the box particularly well," Donaldson said. "Normal circumstances, if he got out of the box well, I let it go every time. But with the circumstances, I feel right now I'd still make the play. I would just make a better throw. I felt like if I made the throw, it's an easy out."
Lindor's shot: The lone breakthrough against Cole arrived in the third, when Lindor pounced on a 2-2 slider left over the heart of the plate. The shortstop sent the offering out to right field with a 103.2-mph exit velocity, marking his fourth career postseason home run. Immediately after making contact, Lindor looked back at Cleveland's dugout, trying to inject some life into the lineup in the process.
"I was hoping. It seemed like we had good at-bats," Lindor said. "I know we struck out a lot of times, but we had good at-bats. It's just the hits haven't fallen. Altuve started a rally with a ground ball to third base. We haven't had any of those. We'll be fine." More >
No way, Jose: With one out and runners on the corners in the third inning, Carrasco induced a sharp grounder to the left side off the bat of Altuve. Donaldson gloved the ball and fired it to Jose Ramirez, who recorded an out at second, but then tripped on the base. While falling over, Ramirez somehow pulled off an accurate throw to first baseman Yonder Alonso to complete a stunning inning-ending double play. More >
HE SAID IT
"They locate. They execute. They've done a very, very good job. Our pitching staff today did a tremendous job. As the offense, we've got to do a little better job." -- Lindor, on Houston's pitching holding the Tribe to a 6-for-60 showing through two games
"He had that upshoot heater. As a hitter, it's a little bit deceiving because it looks like it's going to be in there for a strike and it just keeps going up." -- Donaldson, on Cole
The Indians were one of the hardest teams to strike out during the regular season, posting an 18.5 percent strikeout rate (second in the Majors) on offense. In fact, prior to Cole's performance Saturday, no pitcher recorded 11-plus strikeouts against the Tribe in 2018. The lone double-digit showing was a 10-strikeout game by Seattle's James Paxton on April 26.
Following Sunday's off-day, the Indians will hand the ball to righty Mike Clevinger (13-8, 3.02 ERA) for Game 3 of the ALDS at 1:30 p.m. ET on Monday at Progressive Field. Clevinger and Corey Kluber joined Houston's Justin Verlander and Cole as the only sets of teammates to have at least 200 innings and 200 strikeouts in the Majors this season. The Astros will send lefty Dallas Keuchel (12-11, 3.74 ERA) to the hill in Cleveland.