CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Terry Francona pushed his bullpen to the limits in the final month of the regular season, then leaned on the group heavily in sweeping the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. Now, Francona is asking his relief corps to play a key role in
CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Terry Francona pushed his bullpen to the limits in the final month of the regular season, then leaned on the group heavily in sweeping the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. Now, Francona is asking his relief corps to play a key role in helping Cleveland continue to advance.
During Wednesday's workout at Progressive Field, there were no surprises among the announced starters for Games 1-3 against the Blue Jays in the AL Championship Series, which begins on Friday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS in the U.S. and Sportsnet (English) and RDS (French) in Canada. Ace Corey Kluber will take the ball in the opener, followed by Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer in the next two games, respectively.
It was the Game 4 decision that served as the real news for Cleveland. With nowhere else to really turn, the Indians will start rookie Mike Clevinger in that Tuesday game in Toronto. It will essentially be a bullpen game behind Clevinger, who has been working as a reliever and is not stretched out to handle a starter's typical workload.
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"There's not too much our guys haven't handled," said Indians president of baseball operations] Chris Antonetti, "and I think they're prepared and ready to go pitch when it's their turn."
To be specific, Francona said that Clevinger is "penciled in" for that Game 4 start at Rogers Centre. The manager phrased it that way because the right-hander will still be available out of the bullpen for the first two games of the ALCS. That also leaves open the possibility that, depending on how the first three games go, the Tribe could bring Kluber back on short rest, if deemed absolutely necessary.
Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said the team wants to avoid that scenario.
"Not unless we have to," Callaway said. "I'm sure, at some point, somebody's going to be available if we're facing elimination or playing a Game 7. You're going to see guys coming out of the woodwork wanting to pitch."
The Indians used that bullpen-day approach a handful of times in September following the losses of right-handers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco to injuries. Cleveland led the AL this season with seven games that featured eight or more pitchers, and four of those came in September. Three were designated bullpen days, while the fourth fell on Sept. 17, when Carrasco was injured two pitches into the game against Detroit.
Over the final two months of the season, while dealing with adversity in the rotation, the Tribe's bullpen ranked within the top three in the AL in ERA, strikeouts, WHIP, FIP, opponents' OPS and baserunners per nine innings, among other categories. Eighteen of the Indians' 30 games this season that included the starter exiting in four innings or fewer came in the final two months.
"There's not much our bullpen hasn't experienced throughout the course of the year," Antonetti said. "We've had all different types of games."
Clevinger, 25, served as the Tribe's fourth starter for most of September, but he began the ALDS in the bullpen, as Cleveland could get away with only having three arms in the rotation. During the regular season, the rookie posted a 5.93 ERA and a .837 opponents' OPS in 10 starts, compared to a 3.00 ERA and a .515 opponents' OPS in seven relief appearances.
For Game 4, Callaway said the goal is simply to squeeze as much out of Clevinger as possible.
"It's going to be, 'Go out there and give us everything you have, even if it's for one out,'" Callaway said. "We're not worried about somebody being stretched out in that fourth spot. Obviously, the first three will be the same three that we're pitching before. That fourth slot, we just want effective innings, whether it's one out, one inning, two innings, whatever it's going to be."
Kluber will be opposed in Game 1 by right-hander Marco Estrada, who continued his postseason dominance in Game 1 of Toronto's ALDS. Estrada allowed just one run over 8 1/3 innings against the Rangers, lowering his career postseason ERA to 2.67. In his lone start against the Tribe this year, he gave up three runs over five innings for Toronto, which has not revealed the rest of its ALCS rotation.
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During the Indians' three-game sweep of the Red Sox in the ALDS, the rotation trio of Kluber, Bauer and Tomlin combined for a 2.70 ERA in 16 2/3 innings. Francona showed a willingness to turn to his bullpen early, asking Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero to work 10 1/3 innings in the series.
The rest of the bullpen will be leaned on, too, especially with Clevinger set for Game 4.
"You're going to see those guys pitch, and it's going to be in meaningful games," Francona said. "So I think rather than try to cover everything and then not cover everything, [we'll] just let [Clevinger] keep pitching, and then when he does start, it will be on somewhat of an abbreviated start."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast.