In an average Tribe season, Game No. 162 is often a sleepy Sunday afternoon contest overshadowed by a Browns game—a low stakes “Fan Appreciation Day” with several Quad-A players in the line-up and a wistful feeling of summer’s demise permeating the mood. This year, however, the Cleveland Indians’ 162nd game just happened to be Game 1 of the American League Division Series, and it was a “Fan Appreciation” event of a very different sort.
In what was essentially the team’s formal introduction to a national audience (and, let’s face it, large chunks of Northeast Ohio), the Indians did the diehards proud—grinding out a 5-4 win over the visiting Boston Red Sox in dramatic, sometimes unpleasantly stressful fashion. There are at least a half a dozen good places to shine the spotlight, from Roberto Perez’s heroics to Andrew Miller being Andrew Miller, to Rick Porcello being Detroit Tiger Rick Porcello. But I am going to start with . . . Pedro Martinez.
TBS vs. The Bullpen Revolution
For a long time, the TBS network’s official slogan was “Very Funny,” and that might explain some of the thinking behind their playoff coverage. It was a bit rough last night, to say the least. And while the ever-classy pro Ernie Johnson did his best to make up for the useless sideline “insights” of my boyhood idol Cal Ripken (a guy whose physical appearance has slowly devolved from Paul Newman-ish to Michael Chiklis-ish), there wasn’t anybody to help Pedro Martinez in the post-game show. Not even Gary Sheffield could do it.
Remember when Dustin Pedroia threw a huge fit at the end of the game, right after getting rung up on a Cody Allen dirtball that he VERY clearly DID swing at? Well, Pedro was the lone man on the TBS panel willing to ignore the video evidence and back his boy Dustin right to the end.
“I don’t think he went,” Martinez claimed. He then clarified by explaining that “you can only tell that he swung after seeing the replay in slow motion.” . . . Let that one sink in for a moment. Even in the midst of a political season filled with unprecedented spin-doctoring acrobatics, that level of nonsensical BS has to impress. Not even Dustin Pedroia agreed with Martinez.
Pedroia said afterward he did go around on his swing to end the game and he plans to apologize to Phil Cuzzi tomorrow.
— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) October 7, 2016
Pedro—the old Tribe nemesis, Big Papi bestie, and astute analyst—wasn’t finished. He also went on to cite Rick Porcello’s “long layoff” as the reason for his struggles (he pitched 5 days ago), before taking aim at his old manager Terry Francona. To paraphrase Petey, “Tito used his best bullpen arms too early and for too long. Betts went hitless, Bogaerts went hitless. You can’t expect that to last. What are you going to do when those guys wake up, and then you’ve got no one to turn to?”
I’ll skip over the obvious fact that Betts and Bogaerts only went hitless largely BECAUSE Miller and Allen were in there for 11 outs.
To the larger point, I think this issue could prove to be the lasting legacy of this game / series / postseason for the Indians—in a way that transcends the simple question of whether they win a title or not. After several years in which the entrenched hierarchy of bullpen roles was ever-so-slowly starting to come into question, Tito Francona’s unorthodox use of Andrew Miller (which is actually kind of old school if you’re a Sid Monge fan) looks like it may represent the official breaking point for the relief pitcher establishment.
Miller, who took over for an uneven but respectable Trevor Bauer in the fifth inning, hadn’t entered a game that early all season. Holding a slim one-run, then two-run lead, he eventually worked into the seventh, throwing a season-high 40 pitches and dominating Sox hitters—despite clearly not having his A+ arsenal.
Even with Miller’s inarguable success, there were still many people—fans and “media members” alike—landing firmly on Pedro’s side of this budding debate. “Why bring Miller in that early? Why overwork him in Game One?”
Regardless of whether you identify as old school or new school, it’s fair to say that your opinion on Andrew Miller’s usage is going to put you on one side of a battle-line during these playoffs (we’ll call it “Miller’s Crossing”). It’s also a good bet that many final judgments will hinge NOT on how Miller himself performs as the New Age Reliever, but on how Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, and Cody Allen hold up their ends of the deal. Last night was a mixed bag—Shaw coughed up a homer, Allen toughed out a five-out save. In any case, keep an eye on this war as it develops. And don’t invest too much in the expert opinions of Pedro, Cal Ripken, and all the other former Donruss “Diamond Kings” now employed by the network that shows King of Queens re-runs all day.
“The ball travels better when it’s warm.” – Cal Ripken, Jr., last night
Good (And Bad) Things Come in Threes
The Tribe’s incredible third inning power surge off Porcello will certainly go down in all-time franchise lore, as solo blasts by Roberto Perez, Jason Kipnis, and Frankie Lindor turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead (Mike Napoli hit a 670 foot foul ball that inning, too, and Jose Ramirez hit a ball that Jackie Bradley had to bump up against the wall to snare). Porcello, even during his lowest Tiger days, had never given up three homeruns in one inning before, and Cleveland hadn’t pulled off the feat in a playoff game since 1998 (Thome, Ramirez and Hard Hittin’ Mark Whitten!). The trifecta of taters sent the crowd into a legit tizzy, and you could audibly hear Casual Joe—the Indians “fan” in the Cavs shirt—officially hop aboard the bandwagon. Welcome!
As dramatic and exciting as that homerun barrage was, though, Boston’s three solo shots were actually more bizarre in some ways. Legitimately, what were the odds that Sandy Leon, Andrew Benintendi, and Brock freakin’ Holt would be the ones leaving the yard—and all on two-strike pitches?! This may reflect more on some real bad execution from Bauer and Shaw, but still, it’s the kind of fluky thing you can laugh about only because you got away with it in the end.
What About Bob?
It took Roberto Perez 25 plate appearances, stretched out over two months, to get his first hit of the 2016 season. Now, Exhibit A of how the postseason is truly an entirely new season unto itself, he is on the inside track for MVP of the ALDS (although I don’t think that award exists, so that hurts his chances).
Sometimes unlikely heroes benefit from a few lucky bounces. Not the case with Roberto. All of his signature plays, offensively and defensively, were about smarts, skill, and execution—the sweep tag of Brock Holt at home plate in the first; the opposite field power in the third; tagging up from first base on Carlos Santana’s flyout to left in the fifth (leading to the deciding run). And none of those obvious highlights will include his work behind the plate, guiding the uber-intense Bauer through the early frames, and then holding Andrew Miller’s hand as he bravely navigated the choppy seas of the dreaded middle innings.
While the return of Yan Gomes is a great story, the emergence of Roberto Perez might be an even better one. Johnny Bench, he is not. But he’s also better than a lot of people have given him credit for, especially after a season in which he was rushed back from his own injury to step in for the injured Yanimal.
I am writing these words at 2am EST, and sincerely hoping that Corey Kluber has already been fast asleep for several hours, all cuddled up and cozy, right groin feelin’ ace, and right arm either icy, hot, or an appropriate degree of icyhot. I also wonder, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?