Terry Francona wasn’t about to make the same mistake as Buck Showalter.
The Cleveland Indians manager saw his starter, Trevor Bauer, labor through a few rocky innings Thursday in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Progressive Field. So, in the fifth inning, with Bauer at just 78 pitches and Cleveland holding a one-run lead, Francona decided to take drastic action, pulling Bauer after 4 2/3 innings in favor of star reliever Andrew Miller.
Francona’s daring move worked. Miller stopped any momentum the Red Sox’s offense gained after Sandy Leon’s fifth-inning home run, allowing just one Boston hit over the next two innings while striking out four. After getting two outs in the seventh from right-hander Bryan Shaw, Francona called on closer Cody Allen to record the final five outs, which he (barely) did to clinch Cleveland’s 5-4 win in the all-important Game 1.
Going to your best reliever in the fifth inning is a pretty bold decision. But as Francona saw it, there’s a reason the team went out of its way to acquire Miller, one of the best relief pitchers in the game, at Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline.
“(The Red Sox lineup) made him throw a lot of pitches,” Francona said in a postgame press conference. “That’s a heck of a lineup. But he was up to the task. That’s why we got him.”
Francona appeared to take a lesson from Tuesday night’s AL Wild Card Game between the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, in which Showalter refused to use his lights-out closer, Zach Britton, in Baltimore’s eventual walk-off loss. And while Francona’s decisions Thursday represented a pretty extreme shift from Showalter’s thinking, he’s not apologizing for utilizing one of his team’s biggest strengths.
“Nobody ever said you have to be conventional to win,” Francona said. “We’ve talked about our bullpen, and those guys did a heck of a job.”
There’s a silver lining the Red Sox can take from Cleveland’s bullpen usage Thursday, though. Miller and Allen each threw a season-high 40 pitches, something Miller hasn’t done since Sept. 2015 and Allen hasn’t done since April 2013.
That means if Boston can get to Indians starter Corey Kluber early in Game 2 on Friday, it could see a lot less of Cleveland’s two best relievers.
“We’ll take inventory of what we’ve got,” Francona said when asked about the status of Miller and Allen. “You’re certainly not going to see the same exact way (Friday). But we wanted to win the game (Thursday), and we did. (Friday) might have to be a little bit different design.”
Francona’s unconventional use of the Indians’ strong bullpen paid huge dividends in his team’s important Game 1 win. But this is a five-game series, and it remains to be seen whether he stretched his star relievers too thin out of the gate.
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