CLEVELAND -- Talk about bucking a trend.
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona may end up being known as the anti-Buck Showalter by the time October ends. Novelties of novelties, Francona not only used his best reliever in a non-save situation, he turned toAndrew Miller in a high-leverage situation -- in the fifth inning.
It was a sabermetrician’s dream, and it went over pretty well with the 37,763 dressed in red at Progressive Field as the Indians beat the Boston Red Sox 5-4 in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
After using Miller and Indians closer, Cody Allen, for 40 pitches each in Game 1, Francona may need to turn to Rick Vaughn in relief on Friday. On Thursday, Francona made the decision to just worry about taking Game 1.
“We wanted to win the game tonight -- and we did,” Francona said. “[Game 2] might have a little different design.”
Unlike Showalter's use (or lack thereof) of Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton during the wild-card game -- a 5-2 victory for Toronto -- Francona managed with urgency in Game 1 on Thursday. It was the earliest that Miller had appeared in a game since May 2013, when he was a scuffling member of the Red Sox.
That is not the case these days, as Miller may be baseball’s best reliever -- even if he doesn’t pitch the most prestigious inning, the ninth.
Francona asked Miller to protect a one-run lead and, not coincidentally, do it against the heart of the Sox lineup in the fifth. It had to be a bit deflating for the Red Sox to see the 6-foot-10 lefty, whose fastball-slider combination feels as if it arrives from much closer than 60 feet, 6 inches.
Still, with Miller “a little overamped,” in his words, Brock Holt managed a double and Mookie Betts a walk, setting up the tantalizing matchup of the retiring David Ortiz versus Miller. Ortiz entered the at-bat 1-for-7 with three strikeouts against Miller.
The Indians acquired Miller at the deadline from the New York Yankees in one of those trades that can make general managers legends if the champagne flows at the end of October. This was the exact type of matchup Indians GM Mike Chernoff must have envisioned.
Miller likes to work Ortiz away, fearing that if he comes inside and misses, Big Papi will have another of those moments when he is gazing at a 400-foot homer.
On Thursday night, Ortiz got up 2-1 in the count before Miller unleashed a 97 mph fastball and an 86 mph slider. They both went for strikes -- the closing pitch, the slider, streaked in and out and away in the zone, leaving Ortiz to swing meekly.
After the walk and the double, Miller would retire the final seven batters -- four on strikeouts -- beginning with Ortiz. His 40 pitches were a season-high. He deflated the highest-scoring offense in baseball during the regular season.
“The playoffs are a different animal,” Miller said. “It’s something that whenever Tito asks anybody to pitch we’re all ready to go.”
Ortiz would get another chance in the eighth. Allen was asked to finish a five-out save. Ortiz greeted him with a double, but Allen stepped up to force Hanley Ramirez to ground out and Xander Bogaerts to strike out, stranding the tying run at second and essentially sealing the game.
Francona was all in on Game 1, which means him a little short-handed for Game 2, but with his ace Corey Kluber on the mound the Indians manager is as loose as ever.
“I was joking with Kluber and told him he’s on a tight 165-to-170 [pitch count in Game 2],” Francona said. “Nobody ever said you have to be conventional to win.”