CHICAGO—Andrew Miller made it as far as the on-deck circle. He had a bat—one that he said belonged to pitcher Tommy Hunter, whom the Indians released in August—and he knew he’d need to make contact. Just four batters—and three strikeouts—into his relief outing in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday, Cleveland’s star reliever figured he had at least another inning in him.
Miller had come on for starter Josh Tomlin in the fifth inning and retired all four hitters he faced, three by strikeout, extending his remarkable 2016 postseason statistics to 15 scoreless innings and 27 Ks. But he also hadn’t so much as swung a bat since 2011, when he struck out four times in four total plate appearances with the Red Sox. “I know I’m not anything that’s frightening as a hitter,” he said after the game, happy to help anyone who cared to imagine what a plate appearance might have held: a giant strike zone necessitated by his 6’7″ frame, an awkward attempt to somehow connect bat with ball while also avoiding a double play. Miller’s last hit came on June 11, 2009, a single against St. Louis. (By comparison Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber was just 16 at the time.)
And so the reality of the National League forced Indians manager Terry Francona’s hand. With runners at the corners, one out and a scoreless tie in the top of the seventh inning, Cleveland couldn’t afford to let Miller swing. The player most consider the key to the Indians’ hopes of winning their first World Series title since 1948 was too big of a risk, and almost as quickly as he’d taken those practice swings, he was gone, replaced by 36-year-old outfielder Coco Crisp, who batted .208 in 20 games this season for the team he debuted for in 2002. (By comparison Kris Bryant, another Cubs slugger, was 10 at the time.)
Francona made a statement by removing Miller: He believes his team can win with or without baseball’s most flummoxing reliever. On Friday, Francona was right: Crisp singled, driving in pinch runner Michael Martinez for the only run of Cleveland’s 1-0 win that gave it a 2-games-to-1 lead in the Fall Classic. “It doesn’t matter how you win,” said Miller. “If we won 20–19 we’d be just as excited.”
Over the course of two innings Friday—the seventh and the eighth—both teams got lessons in what baseball can take away. Playing in an American League park earlier in the week allowed these clubs their greatest assets, unrestricted: for the visitors, Miller with no external reason to depart; and for the hosts, Schwarber, who was cleared only to hit after an April ACL tear, a full night’s work as the Cubs’ designated hitter.
Game 3 showed which team could better adapt. The Cubs used Schwarber exactly how anyone could have predicted, as a pinch hitter in the eighth, with one out and no one on base. Schwarber, whose five home runs in last year’s postseason made him the team’s all-time playoff leader in that category, could have tied the game with one swing. Instead he popped out. Cleveland, though, surprised everyone. Instead of leaning on what would have worked at home, and on what had worked in getting them eight wins in their first 10 postseason games, the Indians played the NL game to perfection. Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen followed Miller and allowed just three hits and no walks while securing the final six outs. As an added bonus, Francona also saved an inning for Miller’s arm, which could be useful with games each of the next two nights.
“A lot of times in the regular season, you’re trying to sort things out because there’s a much bigger picture,” the reliever said of his manager’s move. “Here it is. We have five games left including today.”
Of course, Cleveland might now have just two games left and Miller is sure to be a part of Francona’s plan to get them. He’s already been the most dominant member of a dominant staff this October. Friday’s shutout was the Indians’ fifth of this postseason, a major league record, two of which have come in the World Series. Ace starter Corey Kluber has started three of those outings, including the opener of the Fall Classic on Tuesday, and he’ll take the mound on three days’ rest at Wrigley for Game 4 on Saturday. It’ll be his second start on short rest of these playoffs—he started a 5–1 loss to the Blue Jays in ALCS Game 4 on three days’ rest—and it’ll be imperative for the Cubs to get to him if they want to salvage the series.
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“The last time was my first time on short rest, so I didn’t know what to expect about how I was going to feel,” Kluber said before Game 3. “Now that I do know I felt fine, it’s just a matter of using those three days to recover.”
Kluber will certainly have the edge against Chicago starter John Lackey on Saturday night, and even if he does only a passing approximation of his Game 1 start—six innings, four hits, no walks, nine strikeouts in a 6-0 win—the Cubs could be in trouble. Or perhaps they will recall what happened just last week in the NLCS. After the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill led shutout efforts for Los Angeles in Games 2 and 3, Chicago responded with 10 runs the next night and eight in Game 5 and never trailed the rest of the series. The Cubs also rolled to a 5-1 win in Game 2 of the World Series after being shut down by Kluber and company. Chicago has now been shut out four times in this postseason (and won its postseason opener in the NLDS against San Francisco 1-0) yet is still just three wins away from its first title sicne 1908. To say Joe Maddon’s team has been streaky is an understatement, but it’s good enough that even with these offensive dips, it won’t panic. The Indians know that.
But a 1–0 victory behind your No. 3 starter in a city hosting its first World Series game in 71 years—its fans drinking and partying and costuming themselves as if to make up for all those lost opportunities—well, that’s something. And as the helicopters circled above the ballpark and sirens blared outside it and God knows how many thousand plastic beer cups rolled through Wrigley’s emptying stands, the Indians couldn’t help but smile. For a night at least, they’d shut down the biggest party baseball had seen in years.
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