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Countdown to Opening Day – 37
Cody Allen is the closer of the Cleveland Indians. It is a nod that is deserved and should come without mention, but the mere presence of All-Star left-hander Andrew Miller forced manager Terry Francona to be clear with the media on his bullpen expectations for the coming 2017 season.
That Francona even had to specify the role for Allen, who has worked in the closer’s role for the club in some capacity dating back to his third season in the Majors in 2014, is yet another reminder of the lack of respect that the underappreciated right-hander gets around the league for the work that he does on the mound.
“I do like the idea of Cody finishing games and Andrew facing the meat of the order,” Francona shared with the media at Goodyear one week ago, attempting to erase any doubt that the higher-cost, more experienced and tested Miller could split time with Allen or even get the bulk of the work in the role.
Allen’s fifth season in the Majors was right on par with his previous efforts. He appeared in 67 games and 68 innings, the fewest since his debut year in 2012 (27 games and 29 innings). He was 32 of 35 in save situations (91%) and continued to pitch right around his career averages.
He had a rough April. He allowed two runs in his second appearance and after saving three in a row, was tagged for three runs on a homer in a loss against Seattle in ten innings on April 21. After two more saves, he took losses in two of his last three outings for the month, falling to 0-3 with a 6.97 ERA and seven saves through his first eleven outings.
The rust was gone as the calendar flipped to May. He allowed just one run in 12 appearances (13 innings) while striking out 18, but he got a bit wild. He allowed just four hits in the month (.098 batting average against) but walked a season-high nine batters. He would correct that problem over the final four months of the regular season, walking just 13 more batters in his final 44 games. He struck out 15 batters in each of those last four months and allowed just ten more earned runs in his final 44 2/3 innings (2.01 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP in that span).
Allen was already locked in with 20 saves in 22 opportunities when the club added Miller in the blockbuster trade with the New York Yankees. Coupled with the often underappreciated efforts of Bryan Shaw, the trio combined to make a lethal backend of the Tribe bullpen. Allen continued to work almost exclusively as the team’s ninth inning man, saving 12 of 13 games down the stretch with a 1-1 record, a 2.38 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP, and a .139 batting average against.
He finished the regular season with a 3-5 record, had a 2.51 ERA in 67 games, and held the opposition to a .177 average while compiling a straight 1.00 WHIP. He did some of his best work against the middle of team’s orders, holding four hitters to a .185 average, five hitters to a .080 average, and six hitters to a .083 mark. Just three times over the course of the season did he fall behind a batter 3-0 (not including a pair of intentional walk situations). In more than half of his appearances (34 of the 67), he took the mound with no more than one day of rest in between outings.
Allen and his bullpen teammates took that end of the year dominance into the postseason and continued to control the opposition. He appeared in Game 1 and Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox. He worked an inning and two-thirds in his first postseason work since 2013, striking out four and giving up two hits in earning a save. He made another multi-inning appearance in Game 3, walking two and giving up two hits while allowing an inherited runner to score, but he got out of it with no further damage to send the Indians to the American League Championship Series.
He wasn’t out of action for long, as he took the Progressive Field mound in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the ALCS, shutting down the Blue Jays in a scoreless frame with one K. He preserved a 2-1 win the next game, striking out Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista before getting Troy Tulowitzki to fly out. He was back on the mound in Game 3, appearing in the seventh and eighth innings as one of seven pitchers on the day. The Indians got the win and Allen did not give up a run or hit in an inning and two-thirds while striking out two. He would be the final pitcher of the ALCS, giving up a hit but striking out two in a scoreless ninth to clinch the American League pennant for the Tribe.
With five saves, a hold, and no runs allowed through his first six appearances, it was on to the biggest stage in the game. Allen and his ‘pen mates continued to shine against the Chicago Cubs in the Word Series. Allen appeared in four of the seven games, throwing six scoreless frame with 12 strikeouts and two walks with just three hits allowed. He struck out three of the four batters that he faced in the ninth inning of the Indians’ 6-0 Game 1 win. He earned his sixth and final save of the playoffs with one and one-third innings of one-hit relief, striking out three to secure the Game 3 1-0 victory. He sat down four in Game 5, working one and two-thirds innings of one-hit relief while maintaining the Indians’ deficit at one in a 3-2 defeat. He closed out his year with two hitless and scoreless innings in Game 7, striking out two while pitching in parts of the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings.
Don’t expect that multi-inning approach that was implemented in the playoffs with Allen, Miller, and Shaw to be utilized much during the regular season by Francona and his staff.
“I did that a couple of times last year with Cody [during the regular season] and I felt like it was a mistake,” said Francona a week ago. “It doesn’t mean you can’t do that as the season goes.”
The 28-year-old Allen is beginning his seventh season in the Indians organization after his second selection by the club in the draft, first in the 16th round in 2010 and again in the 23rd round the following year. He broke into the Majors by July of the next year and has been a mainstay in the bullpen since. He inked a one-year, $7.35 million deal to avoid arbitration in his second season of eligibility and would appear to be a candidate for an extension prior to hitting free agency after the 2018 season.
Allen has averaged 72 appearances and 91 strikeouts per year in each of his four full seasons in the Majors. With 92 career saves, he needs two to match Mike Jackson for fifth, 12 to tie Jose Mesa for fourth, and 32 to equal Chris Perez in third place on the Indians’ all-time saves list. He is just 47 saves behind the franchise leader, Bob Wickman, who earned 139 in 156 chances while pitching for Cleveland. Allen has also racked up the tenth-most saves in the game over the last three seasons, despite spending a portion of that 2014 season as the Indians’ setup man to John Axford.
Allen will anchor a Tribe bullpen that went from an area of uncertainty for the club heading into the 2016 season to a pronounced strength and one of the feared units in Major League Baseball. The ability of the relief corps to protect the efforts of a strong starting rotation is one of the big reasons that the Indians remain a top pick to claim the AL Central and AL pennant once again in 2017.
Other notable 37’s in Indians history: Larry Doby (1949), Jim Piersall (1959-61), Tommy John (1963-64), Dennis Eckersley (1975-77), Dan Spillner (1978-84), Jake Westbrook (2001-10)
Photo: Rich Gagnon/Getty Images