October surprise: Andrew Miller becomes a household name

CLEVELAND -- Andrew Miller made his last major league start in 2011, but he’s still asked on occasion if he has an itch to try again. Two or three years ago, he might have responded with a “maybe” and a wistful smile. But Miller is 31 years old now, and exceedingly good at his job, and he’s smart enough to understand the danger in tempting fate.

“I think that ship kind of sailed,” Miller said Saturday. “I had my chance.”

He has moved on to a nice, comfortable role as an occasional closer and full-time out generator -- a job that brings him $9 million a year in compensation and the respect of his managers, coaches and teammates. Few people expected October fame to be part of the equation. But two weeks into the 2016 postseason, Miller is the center of attention everywhere he turns.

A bearded, soft-spoken, set-up man with the demeanor of a college philosophy professor has emerged as the undisputed star of the American League playoffs.

One day after striking out five Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, Miller continued his run of dominance. He struck out five batters over two shutout innings to bridge the gap to closer Cody Allen, and the Cleveland Indians beat the Blue Jays 2-1 on Saturday to take a 2-0 lead in the teams’ best-of-seven series as the action heads to Rogers Centre.

Miller, one of the more thoughtful and articulate athletes you’ll find, seems vaguely amused by the mania he has spawned. Before the playoffs began, he was perceived as an all-purpose weapon because of his willingness and ability to pitch multiple innings at any point in the game. He has excelled beyond the parameters of the job and can’t jog out of the bullpen now without sending a buzz through the crowd. And when the game is over, he’s pinned against his locker by a crush of TV cameras and reporters.

In an age of specialization and bullpen “roles,” Miller has struck a chord with old-fashioned versatility and selflessness.

“He competes,” said Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis. “He throws strikes. He can get you to the ninth or be the guy in the ninth inning. You have arguably one of the top five back-end relievers in baseball throwing in the sixth and seventh innings because he just doesn’t care. He’s doing it to win ballgames, and that’s rubbed off on a bunch of other guys. Whatever it takes.”

The numbers to this point are astounding:

  • Miller has struck out 17 of the 28 batters he has faced this postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, there are more than 1,800 instances of a pitcher throwing at least five innings in a single postseason. Of that massive sample group, Miller is the only one who has struck out more than half the batters he has faced.

  • When Miller struck out Darwin Barney leading off the eighth inning Saturday, it gave the reliever nine consecutive punchouts against Toronto hitters. Ezequiel Carrera ended the streak with a routine groundout to second base. So naturally, Miller came back and whiffed Josh Donaldson to end the inning.

  • Miller has thrown 16 scoreless postseason innings with the Orioles, Yankees and Indians dating to 2014. He has allowed four hits and three walks in that span for a postseason WHIP of 0.44.

His teammates’ attempts to praise him are almost as futile as opposing hitters’ attempts to square up his fastball-slider repertoire.

“It’s ridiculous,” said fellow Indians set-up man Bryan Shaw. “He had [123] punchouts on the year, so it’s not like he didn’t get his strikeouts there. His fastball is 93-98 [mph] and his slider is wipeout. It’s awesome to watch. You see some of the swings and you try not to laugh. But you see swings where guys fall down, and you have to chuckle.”

The Indians’ winning formula is bordering on repetitious. Despite a potentially devastating run of injuries to the rotation, they’ve held potent Red Sox and Blue Jays lineups to 10 runs and an aggregate October batting average of .193 (31-for-161) while winning five straight games.

Josh Tomlin, Cleveland’s Game 2 starter, continued a late-season resurgence that stemmed in part from a change in approaches. Tomlin has been more reliant on his curveball and sinker of late, and that combination produced 10 ground-ball outs over 5⅓ innings Saturday. Ground-ball outs are just the antidote for a pitcher who allowed a whopping 36 home runs this season -- third-highest total in the majors.

Shortstop Francisco Lindor is off to a terrific start in this series, and the Indians lead Toronto 2-0, but they’re hitting .182 as a team. Kipnis, Mike Napoli and Jose Ramirez, three of Cleveland's best hitters, are a combined 0-for-19 against the Blue Jays.

The good news for Kipnis is he can arrive at the ballpark Monday knowing he’ll be standing behind Miller at second base rather than having to face him from the batter's box. Kipnis went 0-for-9 with six strikeouts against Miller before the Indians acquired the 6-foot-7 lefty from the Yankees by trade on July 31, so Kipnis can relate to what the Toronto hitters are going through.

“He just has one of those arm slots you can’t plan for or practice against,” Kipnis said. “And his stuff is incredible. Not only do you have to pick a pitch, but you have to execute after that. We know some guy may get a hit, and he knows it will happen. But the chances of someone stringing three or four hits together to get a crooked number against him are very unlikely because of how well he manages the game.”

As the tributes pour in, Miller seems almost sheepish about the praise he’s receiving from all corners. He has no designs on “revolutionizing” bullpen use because saves are still the root of reliever compensation, and any change in the status quo would be met with resistance from relievers, their agents and the Players Association. Miller also disagrees with the notion that he’s doing something special by pitching at so many different junctures in the game.

“I keep getting asked this question,” he said. “I think it’s being overplayed. The majority of relievers are ready to pitch from the moment the first pitch is made until the last out is made. There are very few guys that have the structure where they know they’re going to pitch in this inning or that kind of thing. So I don’t think it’s that big a challenge.”

While the Indians continue their October roll, the biggest challenge belongs to the opposing hitters trying to put the ball in play with authority against Miller. The Red Sox had no response for Miller or anyone else on the Cleveland staff. If the Blue Jays want a better result, they need to find some answers soon.