TORONTO—At 6:54 p.m. on Saturday, having just won Game 2 of the ALCS 2–1 to take a 2–0 series lead over the Blue Jays, amid exploding fireworks and fans in blue and red screaming themselves hoarse, the Indians vacated the grass and dirt of Progressive Field. Twenty minutes later, a handful of them walked right back onto it.
Having used just four of its relievers since the postseason began nine days earlier—relief ace Andrew Miller for 7 2/3 over their five games, all wins; closer Cody Allen for five; Bryan Shaw for 2 2/3; Dan Otero for one—the team decided to get the others some work. So Jeff Manship, Zach McAllister, Cody Anderson and Mike Clevinger filed out to the mound and threw a simulated game of 10 or 15 pitches each.
“When you use three relievers and the rest of your guys haven’t pitched in two weeks, you like them to get some work in,” team president Chris Antonetti, looking on, explained at the time.
Not to worry, Chris.
Righthander Trevor Bauer, starting for the first time since he sustained perhaps the most 2016 injury possible—slicing open the pinkie on his pitching hand repairing a drone—last week, made it only two-thirds of an inning before the pool of blood on the mound grew large enough for Toronto manager John Gibbons to ask the umpires to take a look. They determined that Bauer was in violation of rule 8.02(b), which prohibits a pitcher’s use of a “foreign substance” and pulled him from the game. (“When I went out there, the first thing I saw was blood on the rubber,” manager Terry Francona said afterward. “I figured that wasn’t a real good sign.”) That left the Indians up a run but staring at 25 unscheduled outs.
This was nothing new for Cleveland. Despite boasting by far the best rotation in the American League, it staggered through 30 games in which its starter failed to record an out in the fifth inning—the batting-practice-tossing Twins had 31—and fully 10 of those came in the season’s final month.
“I feel like we had a bullpen game every five days in September,” says McAllister. “So we were prepared for this.”
Francona took a deep breath and strung together 8 1/3 two-run innings from Otero (1 1/3), Manship (1 1/3), McAllister (1), Shaw (1 2/3), Allen (1 2/3) and Miller (1 1/3) to win 4–2 and run its series advantage to an improbable 3–0.
“That wasn’t the way we drew it up,” the manager admitted after the game. “But about our bullpen, that’s one of the most amazing jobs I’ve ever seen.”
The relief corps was certainly the story of the night, but it got some breathing room from first baseman Mike Napoli and second baseman Jason Kipnis, who entered the night 0-for the series.
After Toronto righty Marcus Stroman walked DH Carlos Santana on five pitches to open the game, Napoli crushed a pitch at his knees—he entered the night hitting .407 this season on such offerings—into rightfield, where Jose Bautista couldn’t come up with it. One-to-nothing, Indians.
Then Bauer departed and the next four innings resembled a tennis match: In the second the Jays answered with a Michael Saunders opposite-field home run. In the fourth Napoli got another pitch inches from the first and turned it into the third-hardest-hit home run of the postseason. Eighteen more outs. In the fifth Ezequiel Carrera tripled and scored on a groundout to tie the game again, this time at 2.
Then Kipnis untied it for good in the sixth, blasting a fastball that didn’t quite make it to the outside corner over the rightfield wall. Napoli walked, took second on a wild pitch by Joe Biagini, who had just replaced Stroman, and scored on third baseman Jose Ramirez’s single to right. Twelve more outs.
Francona had called the bullpen in the fourth to let them know that he was planning to mix things up a little, going from Shaw to his closer, Allen, then finally to his fireman, Miller. Most relievers prefer to work on a more Pavlovian schedule—this one’s the seventh-inning guy, that one pitches the eighth, he shuts the door in the ninth; be ready when the bell rings—but Cleveland, led by Allen, have fostered a culture of Swiss Army knives.
“It’s all Cody,” says Miller, whom the Indians acquired from the Yankees at the deadline. “I think his comments before I got here about, ‘Hey, if you can get somebody that helps us, that’s what I want,’ for him to say that in his situation, that’s huge. He’s going to arbitration. There’s nothing better than a save in arbitration and he’s willing to give that up. It goes a long way.”
Their manager tries to support them by giving them as much warning as possible, so Allen was unconcerned when he the bullpen gate opened for him with one on and one out in the seventh. Toronto seemed primed to rally—Kevin Pillar stole second on a call that initially went against him, then Bautista walked on six pitches, at least two of which could have gone either way, and Josh Donaldson sent a soft liner, falling fast, into leftfield—but 36-year-old Coco Crisp appeared just in time to cradle it and end the inning. Six more outs.
Allen got another two; Miller came on for what has become his usual four. He quickly struck out Russell Martin swinging at a slider to end the inning. (There’s no shame there; batters have whiffed at 27% of them this postseason.) Three more outs. After allowing only the second hit all October on that slider, to pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro, Miller set down the last three hitters in order. The bullpen had combined to throw 128 pitches.
“I’m guessing everybody will be available tomorrow,” said Francona. They may have to be: The Indians lost their Nos. 2 and 3 pitchers, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, to injuries suffered before the postseason began. They will throw their ace, Corey Kluber, the 2014 Cy Young Award-winner, but he started Friday, and this will be the first time in 136 career starts that he has pitched on short rest. Game 4 will start at 4 p.m. to accommodate the NLCS; if there is a Game 5, it will be 24 hours later and will likely go to 24-year-old Ryan Merritt, who has made one career major league start.
Both clubhouses were subdued after the game. This hasn’t quite been Blue Jays–Rangers, but enough hostility has emerged for Bautista to question openly after Game 2 whether the umpires were favoring Cleveland, enough for Toronto fans to jeer as Bauer strode off the mound, enough for reporters to ask after the game whether Francona’s scratching his nose with his middle finger during the first inning was supposed to be a message. (“Oh, no, my goodness,” he insisted.)
After Miller induced Darwin Barney to ground to second base to cap a sensational effort, Bauer popped back out of the dugout with a gesture of his own for the crowd: Three fingers, then a circle. Three-nothing. Twenty-seven more outs.