And we're off! Playoff baseball the way it's meant to be played: Win a series, not one game. The Blue Jays roughed up the Rangers 10-1, while the Indians beat the Red Sox 5-4 in a tense thriller which featured some bullpen strategy us nerds loved.
1. Terry Francona manages a playoff game like it's a playoff game. Back in the day, men were men and relief pitchers weren't called "closers" -- they were called "firemen" -- and their managers sometimes used the best ones before the ninth inning. Rollie Fingers, for example, appeared in 16 of the 19 World Series games the A's played from 1972 to 1974, and he pitched 33 1/3 innings. Fingers actually led the Oakland staff with 13 2/3 innings in 1973.
Anyway, Francona laid out his postseason in the fifth inning when he brought in Andrew Miller, maybe the second-best reliever in baseball this season behind Zach Britton. He's going to ride his bullpen, and he's going to Miller -- the lone lefty in his bullpen -- for stints longer than one inning.
He pulled Trevor Bauer after 4 2/3 innings, with two outs and nobody on and the Indians up 4-3. He wasn't worried about Bauer getting a win. He was worried about the Indians getting the win. Miller gave up a double to Brock Holt and walked Mookie Betts but struck out David Ortiz with his patented nasty slider to escape that inning.
Miller retired the next five batters with ease, throwing a season-high 40 pitches in the process. It was the first time Miller entered in the fifth since 2013, before he established himself as one of the most dominant lefties out there. He pitched in three innings as a reliever for the first time since 2011. In the regular season, you ask less of your relievers in order to conserve them over the course of the long season; in the playoffs, you should ask more of your best ones. That's what Francona did in Game 1 and what Buck Showalter failed to do in the wild-card game.
It's as if Francona thought this through ahead of time..— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) October 7, 2016
2. Francona goes all-in on relief pitch counts. After Holt homered off Bryan Shaw in the eighth to make it a 5-4 game, Francona would go to his closer, Cody Allen, who hadn't recorded a five-out save all year (although had recorded five or more outs four times). Allen gave up a double to Ortiz, retired Hanley Ramirez on a hard grounder and then fanned Xander Bogaerts on a great battle -- after a first-pitch fastball, Allen threw Bogaerts six curveballs in a row, finally getting Bogaerts to chase one.
Allen had another tough battle in the ninth after Andrew Benintendi (future star, this kid) singled with two outs. He threw Dustin Pedroia eight pitches, getting him on a 3-2 curveball in the dirt. Pedroia checked his swing and argued with first-base umpire Phil Cuzzi, but the replay seemed to indicate he went past the gray area, and on the TBS broadcast, Cal Ripken thought it was a swing. Good enough for me. And after the game, Pedroia acknowledged that he went around.
So Francona's bullpen usage drew raves from the stathead crew, and the importance of Game 1 certainly was paramount to his thinking: The Game 1 winner in a best-of-five series wins the series 70 percent of the time. It does leave Francona in a bit of a bind for Game 2, as Allen also threw a season-high 40 pitches. Still, with an off day before Game 3, you have to think both Miller and Allen will be available for at least a few batters, or Miller certainly for Ortiz if a big situation arises. Francona will have to rely on Corey Kluber going deep and using Shaw and Dan Otero out of the pen.
But as colleague Jayson Stark tweeted, "Terry Francona proved again he understands the urgency of the postseason as well as any manager alive."
Such a nasty curveball tonight from Cody Allen. Got 8 swings and misses just on that pitch.— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) October 7, 2016
3. In case you didn't know, Progressive Field is a good home run park. The Indians belted three home runs off Rick Porcello ... in the third inning, showing us why their home park had a higher home run factor this season than Fenway Park. No. 9 hitter Roberto Perez, who hit .187 with three home runs this season, started the damage. Then Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor went back-to-back one out later. How improbable were the trio of homers?
Porcello had never given up three home runs in an inning in his career.
Porcello hadn't given up more than three runs in a game since July. He gave up three or fewer in his final 13 starts.
Porcello had gone 65 innings since giving up a home run to the Indians.
4. Marco Estrada's changeup is one of the best pitches in the game. There's a reason Estrada has held batters to a .203 average in each of the past two seasons even though he rarely hits 90 mph on the radar gun: His changeup is one nasty pitch. With an over-the-top delivery, batters just don't see the pitch very well, and Estrada induces a high number of fly balls and popups. In the 54th postseason game in Blue Jays history, Estrada's Game Score of 77 ranks as the second-best start, behind a Dave Stieb outing in the 1985 ALCS in which he pitched eight scoreless innings.
Bidding for his first career complete game, Estrada lost his shutout in the ninth, but it was still a brilliant effort:
He got a season-high 74 percent strike rate and tied his season-high with a 78 percent first-pitch strike rate.
Hitters were 0-for-13 with three K's in plate appearances ending with a changeup.
He threw the pitch 34 percent of the time, his sixth-highest rate this season and higher than his regular-season average of 29 percent.
He used the Rangers' aggressiveness to his advantage, as he threw just seven of his 98 pitches when behind in the count.
Facing Marco Estrada as a hitter must be incredibly infuriating. "WHY CAN'T I HIT IT????"— Isaac (@IB_BlueJays) October 6, 2016
5. Maybe Cole Hamels' struggles down the stretch were something to worry about. Maybe the game turns out differently if Ian Desmond runs down Troy Tulowitzki's two-out triple with the bases loaded. Desmond slowed up and hesitated as he neared the wall, unsure of exactly where he was and looking like a converted shortstop, but Hamels got himself in trouble by starting the five-run rally when he walked No. 9 hitter Ezequiel Carrera with one out and later walking Russell Martin ahead of Tulo. That triple made it 5-0, but if the score remained 2-0, who knows how it plays out.
Hamels ended up throwing 42 pitches in the inning. We have playoff data dating back to 2009, and the only other pitcher to throw 40 pitches in one inning was Clayton Kershaw in the 2013 NLCS against the Cardinals, when he threw 48 pitches in a four-run third inning. Hamels came back out for the fourth, which seemed like a bad idea, and it was -- he managed just one more out. Hamels had a 6.75 ERA his final six starts with 16 walks in 32 innings. The command is obviously a problem right now.