CLEVELAND — Terry Francona was in one of the only places where a manager can be alone with his thoughts during the postseason—the shower—when his phone started to ring. The screen told him that Chris Antonetti, the Indians’ team president, was calling. Francona figured it was bad news. Even as the Indians surged to the ALCS, and Friday night’s Game 1 against the Blue Jays, they had received a lot of it recently, particularly related to their once deep rotation. Last month, they lost two of their best three starters, Carlos Carrasco to a broken hand and Danny Salazar to a strained forearm. So Francona was prepared, but still. “You could have given me a lot of guesses,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have probably got this one.”
Trevor Bauer, who had by necessity been elevated to the Tribe’s No. 2 starter, had suffered what was likely pro sports’ first ever injury by drone. The cerebral righty flies the devices to relax, and he was fixing one on Thursday night—“I think he said ‘routine maintenance,’ and again, I have no idea what that is,” Francona reported—when he cut his hand, requiring stitches.
The incident wasn’t entirely devastating. If you’re a pitcher who is going to slice open an extremity with your drone, you want to do it on your non-pitching hand, but if you’re going lacerate your pitching hand, you want to do it on the top—not the bottom—of your pinky. That’s where Bauer sustained the wound. “Everyone in here, probably, at some point or another, had a drone-related problem,” Francona told the assembled media before Game 1, drawing laughs. He had reason to remain in a good mood. Bauer should be healed enough by Monday to start Game 3. And, despite all of the calamities that have befallen his starters, Francona still had Corey Kluber.
In a postseason that has been characterized by its managers’ creative and cutting edge deployment of their bullpens, and one that might come to be remembered as a tactical tipping point for the sport, the Indians did something novel in Friday’s 2–0 Game 1 win. They got a strong, deep outing from their starter. They followed him with their setup man. They ended with their closer.
Of course, as Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, “It wasn’t like we faced Average Joe out there.” Andrew Miller, the lefthanded setup man, continued to build his case as the game’s most dominant reliever: he recorded five outs, all of them on strikeouts, grinding up the meat of the Blue Jays’ lineup. Cody Allen, the closer, pitched a spotless, 11-pitch ninth.
But the key to the game was Kluber, the Tribe’s last ace standing. Like Carrasco and Salazar, Kluber also sustained a September injury, a strained quad, but unlike them he recovered in time to return for a postseason in which he has now delivered 13 1/3 scoreless innings. Not all of 2014 Cy Young winner’s 100 pitches on Friday represented his best work. While he consistently got ahead of Toronto’s hitters—not one of the seven who led off an inning against him reached base, and he threw first pitch strikes to 18 of the 26 he faced—he allowed six hits over his 6 1/3 frames. However, as Francona said, “When there was some traffic, boy, he’d bear down.” When he walked off the mound in the seventh, to be replaced by Miller, the crowd at Progressive Field chanted, “KLUUUU.” Kluber, who is generally unemotive, didn’t respond. “I can’t just flip a switch and turn it off,” he explained, of his unusual focus.
Marco Estrada, the Blue Jays’ starter, was almost as effective as Kluber. In fact, he might have been even better, with the exception of one pitch. Francona considers Estrada’s changeup to be, possibly, baseball’s best, and, it seemed as such through the sixth inning. Until then, Estrada had thrown 22 of them. The Indians had swung 13 times, whiffed on five of them, and had yet to turn one around for a hit. “At some point,” Francona thought to himself, “somebody’s gonna have to hit a change.” Then Francisco Lindor, the 22-year-old shortstop, stepped to the plate.
Lindor always wanted to be a switch-hitter, but when he was growing up in Puerto Rico, his father, Miguel, rarely permitted him to hit from the left side. “If you do everything right in practice, then you get to take a couple swings lefty,” Miguel used to tell his son. Now, though, Lindor was batting lefthanded, with a man on in the ALCS, and against a righty who had an 0–2 count on him and that mystifying changeup at his disposal. Estrada threw his 23rd change. Lindor turned on it and blasted it 412 feet into the night, for a two-run homer over the fence in right center. As he rounded first, he raised his arms in the air. “I’m only a kid, at heart,” he would say. “I celebrate like it’s a walkoff.”
In a game like this, with Kluber on the mound and Miller and Allen in the bullpen, that is just what it was. Kluber’s start, though, wasn’t only vitally important to Game 1, but to the Indians’ fortunes moving forward. Cleveland’s depleted rotation means that there is little chance that the next three games will be nearly so clean, not with the homer-prone Josh Tomlin starting Game 2, the drone-dinged Bauer for Game 3 and, for Game 4—who knows?—probably Mike Clevinger. “When you lose two pitchers like that late, I’m not sure you can move on conventionally and cover that,” said Francona. Game 1 was as conventional as baseball gets, but it will be all arms on deck moving forward, and Miller and Allen will be heavily taxed. Even though Miller threw a relatively high 30 pitches on Friday—“It’s still a lot,” noted Francona—Kluber’s commanding outing meant that he should be fresh enough for Saturday’s Game 2, and that Allen certainly will be.
“Your margin for error is a little bit less when guys get hurt,” said Francona “So you hope you don’t make errors.” Thanks, largely, to Kluber and Lindor, the Indians made none on Friday, allowing them a bit of breathing room for the games to come. “These guys, Cleveland, they took a couple of big injuries, and they just kept on trucking,” said Gibbons, admiringly. They weren’t stopped on Friday, not by Bauer’s drone nor Estrada’s change nor Toronto’s big bats. While the road ahead won’t become impassable starting on Saturday afternoon, it will, almost certainly, get bumpier.