“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned.” The quote from LeBron James has become a silent mantra for the city of Cleveland and was certainly appropriate for the Indians this season. Monday night proved to be no different as, despite losing starter Trevor Bauer just two outs into the first inning with blood gushing from his stitched together right pinkie finger, the Tribe bullpen combined with four runs of offense to defeat the Blue Jays, 4-2, in Toronto in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
The improbable, incomprehensible, and magical victory for the Indians moved the club just one win from clinching the American League pennant with four chances remaining to drive the final nail into the Blue Jays’ coffin for 2016. As obstacle after obstacle and distraction after distraction has stood menacingly in the way of the Indians this season and again in the postseason, a team of destiny appears not only up to the task of defying the odds, but defeating them in the most unrealistic of ways.
The Indians won a significant playoff game, on the road in hostile territory, in a situation in which their opponents’ backs were already pressed firmly against the Rogers Centre’s walls and with eight and one-third innings of relief work. Manager Terry Francona reminded the baseball viewing world once again of the significance of having an incredible bullpen and the largely rested bunch took care of the rest.
Cleveland jumped out to an early lead in the first inning against Toronto’s Marcus Stroman. Carlos Santana walked to lead off the game before a pair of outs from Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor. Forgotten one-time Blue Jay Mike Napoli stepped to the plate and, despite horrendous numbers against Stroman in his career, doubled to deep right as Jose Bautista could not handle the circumstances of the deep fly to the wall. Santana scored and the Indians were once again on top, 1-0.
Bauer struck out Bautista looking to start the bottom of the first in a moment befitting of the pregame distraction set by the struggling Toronto slugger, who cried about the strike zone while using all of the words that he could to avoid a sizable fine from Major League Baseball for his criticisms of its umpires. Bauer would walk Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki around a liner to center from Edwin Encarnacion, but blood had soaked his shirt, dripped on his pants and shoes, and caught the eye of Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who used the moment to pressure the Indians into a lengthy bullpen game. There was no stopping the blood from Bauer’s right pinkie, at least by conventional and acceptable means per official baseball rule. Bauer was done, and Dan Otero was called upon with two on and two out to keep it a one-run game. He did that, getting a grounder from Russell Martin to end the inning.
Michael Saunders tied the game at one with a leadoff homer off of Otero in the second. It was the first homer allowed by Otero this season to a left-handed hitter and it went the opposite way to left for the Jays’ first homer of the ALCS.
Napoli continued his strong start to Game 3 in the fourth inning as he led off the frame with a solo homer to center off of Stroman. The Toronto right-hander had allowed just five homers all season the second trip through the lineup, but the big and overdue blast from Napoli put Cleveland back on top, 2-1.
Jeff Manship finished his second inning of scoreless relief in the fourth and turned the game over to Zach McAllister for the fifth inning when a former teammate came back to haunt the Tribe. Ezequiel Carrera, dropped to the eighth spot in the batting order, sent a two-strike triple to right and came in to score on a groundout from Ryan Goins to knot the game back up at two. Having burned through many of his extra arms in his bullpen, Francona went to the first of his bigger guns and Bryan Shaw got the final two outs of the inning, sandwiched around a two-out single from Donaldson.
That score lasted just four pitches into the sixth. Kipnis drove a 2-2 pitch from Stroman over the wall in right to put Cleveland back on top, 3-2. Stroman exited after striking out Lindor and walking Napoli as rookie right-hander Joe Biagini came on in relief. A wild pitch allowed Napoli to move into scoring position and on the next pitch, Jose Ramirez singled to right field to score Napoli to give the Indians a 4-2 edge.
Shaw worked an easy sixth, striking out a pair, but gave up a single to start the home half of the seventh to Kevin Pillar. Continuing the theme of unconventional bullpen usage, Francona went to closer Cody Allen, who got three outs around a walk to Bautista as Cleveland maintained a 4-2 lead. The inning was highlighted by a sliding catch in left by Coco Crisp to get the Indians out of the two-on, two-out jam.
Allen stayed on to start the eighth, getting Encarnacion to ground out to second before striking out Tulowitzki. Andrew Miller took over against Martin and struck him out swinging, sending the game to the ninth.
The Indians had a chance to tack on some runs in their last at bats as Crisp singled with one out. Tyler Naquin hit a gapper that inconveniently bounced over the wall in right for a ground rule double. With two in scoring position and just one out, Toronto closer Roberto Osuna struck out Roberto Perez swinging before Santana grounded into the shift.
With three outs standing between the Indians and a 3-0 ALCS lead, Miller gave up a leadoff single to Dioner Navarro before striking out Pillar. Pinch-hitter Melvin Upton Jr. met the same fate and Darwin Barney grounded out up the middle to Kipnis, who made a nice backhanded play and throw to Napoli at first to clinch the Game 3 victory.
MORE ON BAUER
There was plenty of criticism to go around about Bauer’s injury, including the usual noise coming out of the mouth of one-time respected baseballer Curt Schilling, whose reputation following his career has taken a notable and deserved nosedive for his general ignorance.
There is also something to be said about the injury sustained by Bauer, who was hurt in a bizarre manner. His gaping finger wound was not the result of some drunken bar fight or general negligence, but was an accident. The timing could not have been much worse, but players cannot be expected to live in a plastic bubble, regardless of the circumstances of the season.
“Sometimes the circumstances aren’t in your favor,” Bauer shared post-game. “Good teams overcome them and find ways to win.”
Bauer, who has had an entertaining exchange if nothing else with some of the Canadian fans to grace his Twitter timeline this season, had this to say after the roaring ovation he received two-thirds of the way through the bottom half of the first inning when he left via injury.
“That was the loudest standing ovation I’ve ever gotten after an outing. I guess I enjoyed the class of them cheering that I was injured.
Stay classy, Canada.
STROMAN FINALLY STRUGGLES AGAINST TRIBE
Stroman was good against Cleveland during the regular season and held them to a reasonable number of runs on Monday, but the Toronto offense was once again unable to do anything against the Indians pitching staff, even one in desperation mode after the quick exit from Bauer.
Stroman entered having allowed just two runs against Cleveland in 14 innings over two starts, striking out 15 batters while walking a pair. He only allowed three hits on the night, but he walked three as some control issues from the final month of the season carried over into his start. He allowed two homers and four runs in total in five and one-third innings on the mound and was dealt the loss.
While plenty has been seen from the backend trio of Shaw, Miller, and Allen this postseason, Otero made his second appearance of the playoffs this season while McAllister and Manship each made the first postseason appearances of their respective careers.
Otero was charged with a run on two hits with a strikeout in an inning and one-third. Manship got four outs and gave up one hit. McAllister allowed the run in the fifth and was credited with a blown save. Shaw got the win after giving up two hits and striking out two on a team-high 28 pitches on the night. Allen got his first hold of the postseason, walking one and striking out two in an inning and two-thirds, and Miller got his first save of the playoffs (to go with a win and three holds) while striking out three more batters to push his total to 20 retired by K this postseason in just nine innings of work. He has retired no fewer than three batters via strikeout in any one of his five postseason appearances with the Tribe.
The Indians became just the fifth team in Major League history and the third team in the Wild Card era to start a postseason with a 6-0 record. They are the only undefeated team in this year’s playoffs and will carry a nine-game winning streak into Game 4 of the ALCS on Tuesday.
Many of the more prominent and vocal members of the Toronto Blue Jays lineup were nowhere to be found postgame for interviews, per Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com. Other circumstances may have kept them from being available to comment on their three-game deficit and significant home loss.
While Toronto will keep its originally scheduled starter, Aaron Sanchez, for the fourth game of the ALCS, Cleveland has announced a change in its expected starter for Tuesday afternoon.
Corey Kluber will throw on three days rest as the Indians look to close out the series. With a taxed bullpen after eight and one-third innings of two-run baseball, Francona will look to his work horse and staff ace to secure a long outing on the mound while trying to eliminate the Blue Jays and bring the American League pennant back to Cleveland for the first time since 1997. Kluber worked Game 1 of the ALCS in his second career postseason start and earned his second win in as many outings this October after throwing six and one-third innings of shutout baseball. He walked two and gave up six hits, but struck out six on 100 pitches.
Sanchez will be tasked with avoiding elimination. The 24-year-old right-hander and 2016 AL All-Star is one of the top arms on the Toronto staff, made clear by his 15-2 record and a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts this season. The Blue Jays gave him extra rest to preserve his arm during the season and it will be the first start for the third-year starter since October 9 when he threw five and two-thirds innings in the ALDS against Texas, allowing six runs on three hits with four walks in a no-decision. He is 1-0 with a 5.06 ERA and 1.50 WHIP lifetime in three games (two starts) against Cleveland, but took a no-decision earlier in the season after allowing five runs (four earned) on four hits and a walk in four innings.
First pitch of the pivotal Game 4 is scheduled for 4:00 PM ET from Toronto.
Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images