NEW YORK -- Andrew Miller is one of the most thoughtful, accountable players in the game, so it was entirely in character when he stood at his locker late Sunday night and embraced the role of stand-up guy. Miller towers above a crowd at 6-foot-7, 205 pounds, so that catch-all phrase has special meaning in his case.
He wasn’t far removed from throwing 12 pitches over two innings in Cleveland’s 1-0 loss to the New York Yankees -- more than enough to ride the down elevator from exhilaration to regret. Late-inning relievers are accustomed to walking the razor’s edge, but the challenges and emotional swings of the job are magnified on a grand scale in October.
In the sixth inning of American League Division Series Game 3, Indians manager Terry Francona summoned Miller for his specialty -- cleaning up other people’s messes. Miller obliged, inducing a pop fly from Starlin Castro to end a bases-loaded threat and maintain Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco's pristine box score line.
One inning and three pitches later, Miller faltered. After throwing two sliders to Greg Bird, Miller caught too much of the plate with a fastball. Bird deposited the pitch into the upper deck in right field for a solo homer. The run held up, and New York extended the teams’ best-of-five division series to a Game 4 on Monday night in New York.
Painful as the outing was, Miller owned every bit of it. He replayed the confrontation for reporters and reflected on his decisions and lack of execution for more than 10 minutes.
“It stinks," Miller said. “I’m the guy that lost a playoff game today. I feel good about the way I’m throwing the ball, but I made a mistake both in location and what I was trying to do. You try to learn from it and move on. You face a lot of the same guys over and over in a series like this, so you tip your cap and move on.
“It was a good swing. My thought process was just clearly flawed. With hindsight, I probably should have thrown a different pitch. What I was trying to do was just wrong in that situation, and I paid dearly for it."
When asked if he knew the pitch was trouble when it left his hand, Miller replied, “I knew when it hit his bat that it was trouble."
How hard is it to achieve what Bird did off Miller? During the regular season, lefties hit .164 (10-for-61) with one extra-base hit off Miller. That lone hit was a home run by the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger on June 13 at Progressive Field. All Bellinger did this season was hit 39 homers and put a hammerlock on the National League Rookie of the Year Award by the All-Star Game.
The sight of Miller falling short on the October stage is a shock to the system for anyone who remembers the 2016 postseason, when he threw 11⅔ shutout innings against Boston and Toronto while posting a 21-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the AL playoffs. By the time the Cubs dinged Miller for a pair of homers in the World Series, he was running on fumes.
This year was a bit of a mixed bag. Miller made two trips to the disabled list with patella tendinitis in his right knee, and the Indians had to be patient and not push him to make sure he was at full strength -- or close to it -- in time for the playoffs.
Regression is all relative. Miller’s WHIP rose from a miniscule 0.77 last season to a slightly less miniscule 0.83 this year, and his strikeouts per nine innings dipped from 14.9 to a nonetheless-imposing 13.6. Even Bird gushed about Miller after hitting the winning home run off him.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best, relievers in our game," Bird said. “I’ve never faced him until this series, but I’ve seen it on our side and seen how good he is. Really, the respect I have for him on and off the field -- I don’t know if there’s anybody like him."
It would be unfair and overly simplistic to hang the loss on Miller, given Cleveland’s lack of offense against Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees’ bullpen. Tanaka carved up the Indians' lineup with his splitter, which looks like a fastball until it dive-bombs in the dirt upon crossing the plate. Jay Bruce struck out swinging in three straight at-bats against Tanaka, even though he knew the split was coming.
“That’s as good as I’ve seen him," Bruce said. “He pitched at the bottom of the zone all night. It looked like it had enough height to take a good swing at it, and then the bottom fell out of it. I think we all knew going in that if he was going to have success, that would have to be how he did it."
Things didn’t get any easier when Tanaka left the game. In the top of the ninth, Bruce stepped to the plate against Aroldis Chapman with runners on first and second and a chance to tie it, but he struck out swinging for a fourth time. Chapman threw him five straight fastballs, clocked at 101, 101, 100, 101 and 101 mph.
The Indians will face another challenge Monday night in Luis Severino, who will be looking for redemption after a terrible outing in the American League wild-card game. Cleveland will counter with Trevor Bauer, who was superb in the series opener and seems to relish the idea of going on short rest in Game 4.
If the game is tight in the sixth or beyond, the Yankees can look forward to a return engagement with Miller, who has bailed out the Indians enough times since his arrival in the summer of 2016 that his teammates are happy to cut him a little slack.
“He’s human," shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “He’s helped us win a lot this year and last year. When we lose a game like that, it’s part of the game. We understand it’s going to happen."
Cleveland’s manager confirmed that if the planets align properly, Miller could be around for considerably longer than his 12-pitch cameo in Game 3.
“He might pitch forever tomorrow," Francona said.