HOUSTON -- Indians manager Terry Francona admitted the statement wasn't particularly profound. And when you read it in plain type here, it doesn't necessarily convey the intended inference. But this is what Francona said prior to Game 1 of the American League Division Series between his Indians and the Astros:"When
HOUSTON -- Indians manager Terry Francona admitted the statement wasn't particularly profound. And when you read it in plain type here, it doesn't necessarily convey the intended inference. But this is what Francona said prior to Game 1 of the American League Division Series between his Indians and the Astros:
"When you go to the bullpen, you're in your bullpen."
For Francona, the residual effects of that first move -- especially when it involves two horses of the ilk of Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber -- are considerable. Make the hook and you're on the hook for whatever unscripted, potentially extra-innings craziness is yet to come. Even in the amplified aggression of this postseason stage, it's a decision that can't be made without clear conviction.
:: ALDS schedule and results ::
So it was fascinating to watch how Francona and Astros skipper AJ Hinch handled those delicate decisions in Houston's eventual 7-2 win on Friday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.
Kluber's end of the proposed pitching duel between two of the game's most assured aces unraveled in the fourth, but Francona stuck with him -- arguably a beat too long.
Hinch, meanwhile, yanked Verlander at the very first sign of fatigue, which, fortunately for all involved with the Astros, didn't arrive until after five no-hit innings.
So while it's true, obviously, that a 12-3 hit differential in favor of Houston was a big difference in this ballgame, it's also conceivable that the game could have taken on a different dimension -- perhaps even with a different result -- had those decisions been handled differently.
Let's dig into them.
Save for a couple "hit by pitches" that were actually button-brushes brought about by Marwin Gonzalez's loose jersey and Tyler White's belly, Kluber hung with Verlander for his initial trip through the Astros' order, breezing through the first three innings on just 33 pitches.
Then came the fourth. Alex Bregman hit a 107.1-mph rocket to the Crawford Boxes for the game's first hit. Yuli Gurriel walked. Two outs later, White and Josh Reddick strung together consecutive singles, the latter of which made it 2-0. Kluber struck out Martin Maldonado to escape the inning, but he had thrown 35 pitches to get to that point.
Was Kluber gassed? Is Kluber gassed? It didn't affect him much in a few starts against lineups employed by the White Sox and Royals, but Kluber's average sinker velocity in the month of September was down slightly from the first five months of the year, and this start was an extension of that. That doesn't matter much if you have command. But beginning in the fourth, Kluber did not. And the Astros' lineup, which you might have noticed runs deeper than those of the Royals and White Sox, began to pounce.
That's one bit of context to consider. The other is that the Indians entered this postseason with the idea that they are going to employ their best pitchers as often as possible, which explains why Trevor Bauer, a onetime 2018 AL Cy Young Award candidate who only recently returned from a stress fracture in his right ankle, was in the bullpen for Game 1 and not mentally preparing to start in a Game 4 that may or may not even happen.
In other words, if the Indians were going to apply Bauer as some sort of midgame piggybacker capable of putting a pause on whatever Houston run total was up on the scoreboard, the start of the fifth inning would have been a reasonably interesting -- possibly ideal -- time to do so.
Francona did not. He rode his horse, and the horse buckled. George Springer and Jose Altuve both went deep to open the inning, 2-0 became 4-0, and the rest of the afternoon was uphill all the way for the Indians.
Was Tito tempted to make an earlier hook of his ace?
"Once you go, you're committed," Francona repeated. "If you win, [you need] five innings [from your bullpen], and four if you lose. We've got a game [Saturday]. Once we were behind, I wanted to try to keep it where it was, not have the guys pitch too much."
Fair enough. And there's no doubt that Hinch had, by far, the easier decision with Verlander in the sixth, when the innings calculus is inherently less of an issue.
Still, it took a good deal of faith in the bullpen to pull Verlander when Hinch did. Dominant for five innings, Verlander finally wavered by allowing hits to Yan Gomes and Francisco Lindor and a walk to Michael Brantley to load 'em up with one out in the sixth. The third time through the order penalty (and the Indians had the heart of their order due up) is very real in baseball, but so is the temptation to ride your horse through hell or high water.
Hinch? He opted for Thomas Pressly.
"That inning was spiraling a little bit," Hinch explained. "J.V. really only made one bad pitch the entire game. I think the Lindor single, he would take back and do it a little different. Ran out of gas a little bit against Brantley. And all we asked Pressly to do was come in against [Jose] Ramirez and [Edwin] Encarnacion -- 60-plus homers, almost 70 homers with those guys."
Pressly has been a revelation in 2018 and particularly since his July arrival from the Twins. The Astros have taken advantage of the elite spin rate on both his curveball and four-seamer, and they have implored him to be more aggressive up in the zone. It resulted in a bonkers 10.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 1/3 innings with Houston.
In other words, Pressly was a worthy replacement for Verlander. And though that spin got the best of him with a wild pitch that allowed the Indians to score their first run, he got Ramirez to ground out (another run came home on the play to make it 4-2) and Encarnacion to strike out. Pressly was perfect in the seventh.
The eighth went to Lance McCullers, the ninth to Roberto Osuna, and that was pretty much that. By the time Francona went to Bauer in relief of a shaky Cody Allen in the seventh, with the score now 5-2, the air was out of the experience. And Bauer wasn't at his sharpest, either.
This underscores a potentially pivotal plot point in this series: The Indians have a bullpen high on upside and intrigue, with Bauer involved and with Andrew Miller (who has battled health woes) and Allen (who has battled mechanical woes) trying to reclaim the dominance they displayed in the 2016 run to the pennant.
The Astros, on the other hand, have a bullpen high on… reality. It is, unquestionably, a present, potent force that had the best relief ERA in the Majors in the last two months of the season by more than half a run. Heck, you could probably put together a solid postseason bullpen with the guys Houston left off its postseason roster, beginning with Hector Rondon and Joe Smith.
That's why it's easier for Hinch to confidently make that no-going-back call to the bullpen than it is for Francona. And that's one big reason why the Astros are up 1-0.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.