CLEVELAND -- This was the series the Indians wanted. They wanted it last year, when they were a best-record-in-the-American-League-earning, 22-game-win-streak-creating machine. And they wanted it this year, when the poor quality of competition in the AL Central made the 162-game schedule feel like extended spring camp.
In Houston, Cleveland's players recognized an opponent structured similarly, with homegrown stars, stud starters and a certain swagger. But the Indians' meant-to-be matchup with the Astros in last year's AL Championship Series never came to be, because they let a 2-0 lead to the Yankees wither away in the AL Division Series.
:: ALDS schedule and results ::
This year's ALDS was supposed to be a reckoning, a flipped switch after the slog of a season. With a date with the Astros (with the Red Sox running away with the No. 1 seed, and the A's rotation falling apart) looking inevitable, the Indians added to their bullpen, took a calculated gamble on former AL MVP Award winner Josh Donaldson and got healthier in September. They felt ready.
They wanted the defending champs. And, well, they got the defending champs.
Houston might be a better October team today than it was a year ago, which is a frightening thought. The Astros have traumatized the Tribe in the first two games of a best-of-five set that could end as soon as today at Progressive Field. In Games 1 and 2 at Minute Maid Park, the Astros put a strikeout-laden stranglehold on a Tribe lineup that statistically was the toughest to K in 2018, and they battered Cleveland's key bullpen arms and staff ace Corey Kluber.
"We need to figure out a way to beat them," said Indians manager Terry Francona, "because the first two games, they've really kind of had their way with us. We need to change that."
So how do the Indians regroup, regather and put themselves in the extreme statistical minority by making something of this series?
Here are five ways:
1. Try to win one game in one day, not three
Start with the most basic of baseball mantras: One game at a time. That's rudimentary, but most teams in Cleveland's position either lay down and die, or try too hard to get it all back in a day.
All told, 27 clubs have returned home in a best-of-five DS when facing an 0-2 hole. Just three of those clubs went on to win the series, and only 11 forced a Game 4 (and only four of those 11 were able to force a Game 5).
The Indians had a frustrating firsthand view of the framework for such a big, rare bounceback. Remember: The Yanks took Game 3 at home in 2017, and not by unloading their frustrations in some lopsided affair. They squeaked by with a 1-0 win, with the key moment coming when the 6-foot-7 Aaron Judge reached over the right-field wall to rob Francisco Lindor of a home run.
"If Judge is 6-foot-1 instead of 6-foot-9," Francona exaggerated, "we probably win Game 3."
The lesson? Get a taller right fielder.
Well, OK, if you can't follow that particular lesson, follow this one: Don't forget how one galvanizing moment can create even the slightest sliver of doubt in the mind of your opponent. That matters.
2. Take advantage of life after Verlander and Cole
Houston's Game 3 starter Dallas Keuchel and potential Game 4 starter Charlie Morton could capably front an October rotation. They're great.
But after what Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole just did to this team, any stylistic shift ought to embraced by the Indians with open arms.
Keuchel thrives primarily by killing worms (53.7-percent ground-ball rate) with his sinker and limiting hard contact and walks, and his improvement in the second half was in part due to improved feel for his changeup. Morton, who has recently battled a right shoulder issue, has elite four-seam velocity akin to Cole's (96.1 mph, on average), but he uses the pitch far less frequently and is less likely to challenge Cleveland hitters with it up in the zone.
The Indians crush fastballs (of all varieties) in the lower two-thirds and below the zone. Their .532 slugging percentage on such pitches was, per Statcast™, second only to that of the Yankees (.535). And there will be more opportunities against such pitches with Keuchel or Morton on the mound.
3. Get Frankie going
The leadoff role is important in any offense. And when the leadoff hitter happens to be just the fourth player in history with at least 25 steals, 35 homers, 40 doubles and 125 runs in a single season, that importance is outsized.
Save for one big swing on a Cole slider (and we're not dismissing the impressiveness of that poke, because it was literally the only damage done off Cole), Lindor has been kept quiet by the Astros' arms thus far in this series. Lindor is a bit more susceptible to right-handed pitching, in general, and especially right-handed pitchers who can command the fastball up in the zone.
Keuchel presents a more Lindor-friendly profile. Lindor has fantastic numbers against lefties (.343/.423/.583), and amazing numbers against changeups (his 20 extra-base hits against the pitch were the most by any player since 2006, according to Sports Info Solutions). Lindor can't do it all on his own (Nos. 2-5 hitters Michael Brantley, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion and Donaldson have been essentially invisible, and Ramirez's struggles stretch back a month and a half), but he will be in a better position to generate traffic and opportunity in Game 3 than he was in Games 1 and 2. That's a start.
4. Beat Thomas Pressly
Astros manager AJ Hinch has made it clear that Pressly is his go-to bridge guy in this loaded bullpen, and why wouldn't he be? In 25 2/3 innings with Houston, Pressly has struck out 35 of the 92 batters he's faced and allowed just two runs on 11 hits with four walks. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Cleveland escapes these damning odds without overcoming Pressly at least once.
How do you do that right now? Uh, I have no idea, honestly. But back when Pressly was with the Twins earlier this season, the Tribe beat him on June 3 with a couple of walks and an Encarnacion homer that erased a 3-1 deficit. So… I guess, just do that again!
"Bullpenning" was an October approach of the A's and Brewers, but the Indians have to do things differently. Cody Allen looks unusable right now, Andrew Miller had absolutely no feel for his slider in Game 2 (rendering moot much of the optimism associated with his September return from a shoulder issue), and while Brad Hand has been a fantastic in-season addition, the Astros' right-handed-heavy lineup is not an ideal matchup for him to provide multi-inning relief.
The X-factor is the same as it ever was. Can Trevor Bauer effectively piggyback the starter?
Francona's use of Bauer arguably came two innings too late in Game 1 and three batters too late in Game 2. It goes without saying that Cleveland needs a strong start from Mike Clevinger today, and the key to Clevinger's 2018 rise up the ERA leaderboard (further development of the slider) profiles well against a Houston lineup that was middle-of-the-pack in batting average (.213) and slugging percentage (.354) against right-handed sliders this season.
But if the moment comes to go to the bullpen in a close game, Bauer needs to be prioritized in a way he wasn't in Games 1 or 2. Heck, at this stage, you can't rule out the possibility of Kluber coming out of the 'pen, even though he clearly wasn't at his sharpest in Game 1. There's no way the Indians are going to survive this thing without improvement from actual relievers, and using Bauer in Game 3 takes him out of the running for the Game 4 start. But get the outs in front of you first and worry about the rest later.