CLEVELAND -- As Terry Francona stood on the mound at Progressive Field Thursday night, waiting for Andrew Miller to take the ball in the fifth inning, an orthodoxy of bullpen usage was just waiting to crumble. Already, this postseason has claimed one victim in baseball’s unending pursuit to tether itself to its own self-perpetuating conventional wisdom. For a sport that has introduced analytics into the mainstream and created an entire generation of front offices reared on data and exploiting the numbing banality of groupthink, managers can still too-often just paint by the numbers. Relievers are used the way they are because they have always been -- a truism grounded in inertia.
But here was Miller, a 6-foot-7 left-handed weapon that Francona could deploy at any time and anywhere if he just chose to. With a 96 mile per hour fastball, a hellacious slider and a 1.45 ERA this season, the Cleveland Indians had given up four prospects for him for just these moments. Whether they came in the eighth or the fifth, with two outs, a one-run lead and the middle of the Boston Red Sox lineup upcoming, this was his time.
Several hours later, after the Indians had taken Game 1 of the American League Division Series 5-4, upending Boston and pounding a possible Cy Young award winner, Rick Porcello, for three home runs, this was still the act that turned a game into theater.
“Nobody ever said you have to be conventional to win,” Francona said afterward.
The decision to bring in Miller was hardly an easy one. Trevor Bauer, Cleveland’s starting pitcher had allowed three runs over 4 ⅔ innings but was tiring, having already thrown 78 pitches. Brock Holt, Mookie Betts and David Ortiz were up next on the line and about to face him for a third time.
With welts to their rotation, the Indians needed a way to manufacture outs and innings in this series. Corey Kluber, their ace will start Game 2 Friday, and Bauer was starting because Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco are too injured to pitch. And getting through Boston’s lineup, the highest-scoring in the league, required ingenuity.
“That’s reality for most relievers,” he said. “There’s a couple of closers out there that are set in stone but for me I’m flexible and at this point of the year everybody is flexible.”
Miller hadn’t pitched before the sixth inning in almost four seasons. This year, while dominant, the Indians only used him before the seventh once in his 26 appearances for the team after they acquired him from the New York Yankees in July. He already had an indication that he should be ready at any time, that although Francona hadn’t given him specifics, he knew to be prepared.
Against Holt, Miller was jumpy and overly-excited. He gave up a double -- just the 14th hit he’s allowed to a left-hander all year. Then he walked Betts, putting Ortiz at the plate in crucial outcome-altering situation. It took a 2-2 slider to put him away and sending the stadium into a frenzy.
In all, Miller threw 40 pitches and lasted two innings. He came into the game with a one-run lead and left in the seventh with Cleveland up two, not bristling at his early call but embracing it.
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“He’s unreal,” Francisco Lindor said. “When he came from the pen it was just security. A little bit of security, a little bit of relief. However, you start looking through the lineup, seeing matchup, with a guy like that you feel good.”
In the Indians clubhouse, there was no shock that Francona had pulled the trigger on Miller so early. While Buck Showalter had waited too long Tuesday night, leaving Zach Britton unused as the Baltimore Orioles’ season ending in agony, Francona chose Miller’s spot rather than having a spot for him at all.
“I’m never surprised with anything Tito does,” Mike Napoli said. “You never know.”
That Francona then had to make do for seven more outs wasn’t immaterial. Bryan Shaw gave up a solo home run to Holt in the eighth and the manager leaned on closer Cody Allen for the final 1 ⅔ innings and 40 pitches. Every pitch thrown in the white-knuckle anxiety of the playoffs and ripe for second-guessing.
If Miller had faltered, Francona could have been skewered for bringing him at that point altogether. If Shaw or Allen had let the lead wash away, then hindsight would have been clear and Miller’s absence in those late innings would have loomed large. Because as much as the process is venerated, it doesn’t take strawmen to only value results.
But Francona’s moxie showed that there is a way to use bullpens without relying on the tired and worn out patterns. Miller thinks it might not be that far away.
"I think that certainly bullpens are kind of being adjusted right now,” he said. “They're certainly something everyone talks about. Everyone wants to talk about the Royals the last few years. I saw what Boston did in '13. I was part of Baltimore in '14. Maybe as more and more stats come out we realize there's bigger moments in the game than the eighth and ninth inning, and that can be appreciated. But the playoffs are a different animal. And it's something that whenever Tito asks anybody to pitch, we're all going to be ready to go.”