TORONTO — Late Saturday night at Progressive Field, four Indians relief pitchers threw a simulated game. Cleveland had already taken a 2-0 lead in their American League Championship Series and has been so dominant that a new dilemma has arisen for the team.
They needed to ensure the rest of their staff throws enough pitches.
Such is life for the Indians right now. Their starters and relievers Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller have been so good that the organization is suffering from an overflow of riches. While most teams are trying to keep their pitchers rested enough to pitch when they can — Clayton Kershaw will have pitched three times in five days by Sunday night — Cleveland has five relievers who haven’t thrown in more than two weeks.
So how did the Indians get here? How is it, that over five postseason games, they have not lost once, swept the Boston Red Sox and put the Toronto Blue Jays halfway to elimination already? That two of the best lineups in baseball have scored just nine runs in that time, while Cleveland has won close and won big. The Indians are no surprise - they won 94 games and the American League Central title - but their run has been unexpected. Even the Cubs have lost once.
Last weekend, rival scouts at Fenway Park were shocked that the Indians had won the first two games of the series, let alone that they went on to win again. The Blue Jays haven’t offered many credible explanations yet.
Toronto returned home Sunday, to the Rogers Centre and a home field they expected to be ravenous and an advantage. They have scored just one run so far and unwilling to admit much else. Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays’ star slugger, maintained that his team has had good at-bats against the Indians and implied that there are more nefarious forces working against them.
"All you gotta do is look at video and count how many times Indians pitchers have thrown pitches over the heart of the plate. It hasn't been many," Bautista said. "They've been able to do that because of the circumstances - that I'm not trying to talk about, because I can't.
"That's for you guys to do. But you guys don't really want to talk about that, either."
Whatever those “circumstances” are, he did not want to elaborate. Though Bautista made sure to bring it up again. Toronto may be suffering from a paucity of pitches served up to them that they can crush, but to hear Bautista is to see less of an acknowledgment of reality than blatant finger-pointing.
However potent, conspiracy theories will not drive in runs for the Blue Jays. Instead, they must find a way to hit the Indians pitching at some point to avoid falling into a 3-0 hole.
Cleveland has found a comfortable formula for itself so far. They have an ace in Corey Kluber, and two workmanlike starters who bookend him. And manager Terry Francona doesn’t need much from them either. Miller, the redoubtable left-hander, can be deployed at nearly any point and the bullpen has already thrown 16⅔ innings so far these playoffs. Even the team acknowledges that this pace is unsustainable - that they cannot rely on essentially six pitchers for an entire month.
“No,” pitching coach Mickey Callaway said, knowing just how farfetched that would be.
But they’ve made it work until this point. Trevor Bauer will start Game 3 after he was a late scratch from Game 2 because of a drone-related incident. He cut his pinky while fiddling with the machine Friday and necessitated an emergency room visit.
It was hardly news for the club. Bauer operates on his own dial and the Indians have come to appreciate that. When he sat down for his press conference Sunday, with the orange and black drone at the table, it was clear that he and everyone else has taken the mishap with aplomb. He called it a “freak accident” but says that it will have no lasting consequences. There was a worry that the cut on his right pinky, which stretches from nail to second knuckle, could affect the grip on his changeup, but that dissipated after a bullpen session Saturday.
“I was worried that I wouldn't be able to pitch at some point in the series,” Bauer said. “I got pretty lucky.”
The Indians have managed to hold the Blue Jays quiet by matching Toronto’s weaknesses with preparation and skill. Facing a team that feasts on fastballs, Kluber tweaked his repertoire in Game 1 to go heavy on sliders. Tomlin threw curveballs on nearly half of his pitches in Game 2.
The Blue Jays had the worst slugging percentage of any team in baseball against curveballs this season and it’s worth watching to see if Bauer follows form Monday, too. His curveball has been his primary offspeed pitch this season.
“We always have a gameplan going in but the first thing we always stress from the first day of spring training is pitch to your strengths from game to game,” Callaway said. “I think it just so happens that was their strength that night. Tomlin, that was the best curveball he’s ever had so he kind of stuck with it. He was keeping it below the knees. Obviously, I think there is a trend there but I think first and foremost guys are going to go out there and pitch to their strengths that night.”
Perhaps, the Indians will continue on unimpeded. Perhaps their beleaguered rotation will grow stronger with every October night and their bullpen will finally feel the weight of such a heavy workload.
Yet, right now, there seems to be little inclination inside Cleveland’s clubhouse to believe that logic will slide in and take the place of the magical run the Indians have had to this point.
“We’re just going to let it roll,” Mike Napoli said. “And see what happens.”