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Cleveland’s Holy October Pitching Trinity Did It Again

A familiar recipe on the mound and proven approach on offense propelled the Indians to a Game 1 World Series win — but there’s good news for the Cubs

Getty Images
Getty Images

Game 1 of the World Series between baseball’s most notable nonwinners retaught a lesson we’ve already learned: The Indians aren’t kind to comeback attempts. Their game plan in this series is to start Corey Kluber as often as possible, scratch out a few runs early, and suppress rallies with their righty-lefty late-inning duo, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. On Tuesday night, the plan went so smoothly that Allen’s game-ending appearance was overkill, coming as it did with a 6–0 lead that soon turned into a final.

Kluber was brilliant, as he so often is; as much as we obsess over Miller’s dominant outings, Kluber can be equally unhittable for three times as long. Pitching seems simple when a once-and-future Cy Young winner spends his whole start painting the periphery of the plate; hitting the corners looks so easy that we wonder why others don’t do it as often. Kluber followed sinkers to one side of the plate with cutters (or sliders, as they’re classified by both PITCHf/x and a mic’d up David Ross, who was heard calling them “filthy”) to the other; he worked up and down, tailed in and away, and left little over the middle. After the game, Terry Francona described his ace’s movement as “extremely good”; Kluber’s catcher, Roberto Pérez, called it “too much,” and it was for most Cubs batters.

Through three innings (and eight strikeouts), the greatest source of suspense was whether Francona would be forced to choose between using his finishing move (Miller) and letting Kluber chase World Series strikeout records. The Cubs aren’t kind to comeback attempts, either — during the regular season, they were the only team better than the Indians at holding a lead after the first — but to keep Cleveland from coming back, Chicago would need to have a lead. Kluber denied them that chance, and it took him only 88 pitches to transfer power to Miller, which should help Kluber bounce back in time to start Game 4 on Saturday.

Miller looked a little less in command than usual — in this outing, he actually put people on base — but that didn’t prevent him from extending his streak of scoreless postseason innings to 22. In the span of several seconds after his inning-ending strikeout of David Ross in the seventh, The Ringer’s Slack chatters described Miller as a monster, a machine, a legend, filthy, and amazing, with some swear words added for emphasis. As Jeff Sullivan noted in May, Miller has the enviable ability to make opponents take pitches inside the strike zone and swing at the ones that would most likely be balls. The end of that bases-loaded at-bat by Ross (who arguably should have been replaced by a pinch hitter) was the perfect illustration: Ross took a slider down the middle on 3–1, then waved at one on 3–2 that looks way inside in a pitch location screenshot, but didn’t on its trip to the plate.

The Indians have now distributed 58.3 percent of their postseason innings to Kluber, Miller, and Allen, their three best per-inning arms. In related news, they’ve gone 8–1.

Even on offense, Cleveland adhered to a proven formula. It’s tough to beat the Cubs with balls in play; at almost every position, Chicago starts someone whose work in the field looks like a Tom Emanski tutorial. The Indians started the rally that scored their first runs with a two-out, first-inning single by Francisco Lindor, but it took more than singles or doubles to bring the runner around.

Before first pitch, Cubs manager Joe Maddon emphasized the importance of keeping Lindor off base (which the Cubs were able to do only once), acknowledging that his team would have “a 10 percent chance at best” of throwing out “actual base stealers” with Jon Lester on the mound. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, said someone who wasn’t Sigmund Freud, and sometimes a steal is just a steal. When Lester is pitching, though, no steal attempt is an island; it’s part of an archipelago that leads back to the 2014 AL wild-card game, when the world learned that Lester never throws to first. Heading into Game 1, we wondered whether the Indians’ base-stealing skills and Francona’s refusal to be bound by tradition would cause Cleveland to be more ruthless in exploiting Lester’s pickoff yips than most teams have been since the Royals ran wild versus Lester’s A’s. When Lindor took off, it seemed to support the speculation.

After Lindor’s steal, Lester lost the plate. Maybe he worried about more steals to come; maybe he was feeling guilty about being the agent of America’s gastrointestinal distress.

Whatever the cause of his wildness, he walked Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, eliciting a mound visit from Ross. With the bases loaded, José Ramírez dropped down, in effect, a flawless bunt — not the intentional type with which the Dodgers tried to rattle Lester, but a swinging one that dribbled toward third with the infield back. Lindor scored on that single, and Napoli made it 2–0 when the next batter, baseball magnet Brandon Guyer, was struck by his 32nd pitch of the season, which brought out pitching coach Chris Bosio for another conference.

That was where both the first-inning scoring and the stealing off Lester stopped: On Lindor’s next attempt, he got gunned down. In the process, though, he gave us a window into why Lester has flourished despite his odd tick. On the pitch before he took off, Lindor left early, then stopped when Lester stepped off; with any other pitcher, a pickoff would have followed. Naturally, Lester didn’t throw — yet Lindor went back to first base instead of proceeding to second.

Even after witnessing that demonstration of Lester’s weakness — and with no reason to worry about a David Ross back-pick, since he had already decided to steal — Lindor’s lead on the next pitch was barely better than average on an attempted steal of second. The sequence offered even more evidence to back up the theory that runners let Lester off easy because some combination of decorum and deeply ingrained instincts against lefty starters keeps them close to the bag. After those hiccups, Lester settled down; it took him 26 pitches to finish the first, but only 97 to get through 5 2/3. For all of his griping and scrubbed-from-the-broadcast swearing — a predictable product of plate umpire Larry Vanover’s small and inconsistent strike zone — the pitch plots suggest that on the whole, Lester wasn’t squeezed more than Kluber.

The rest of the runs came on two bombs by Pérez, of all people, who was among the 25 weakest hitters to make at least 180 trips to the plate during the regular season. Pérez has some pop — he hit seven homers in limited time in 2015 — but he played as much as he did not because of his bat, but because he’s one of baseball’s best framers, which he demonstrated on some of Kluber’s six looking K’s. (He also played as much as he did because Yan Gomes got hurt and the Indians failed to trade for Jonathan Lucroy.) Pérez’s first home run came on a ball launched at 112.9 miles per hour, the hardest-hit ball allowed by Lester all year (and the second-hardest hit by the Indians). Even with an unfamiliar star, the story was nothing new; this year’s postseason teams are now 24–1 when they out-homer their opponents, the latest reminder that hitting home runs is a good way to win in the playoffs.

The team that takes Game 1 in a best-of-seven series immediately becomes the favorite to finish it off, even if the odds were stacked in the other direction hours earlier. The consolation for Cubs fans is that this game — in Cleveland, facing a fully rested Kluber — was the one they were most likely to lose. No one picked the Cubs to win the series because their ace was ace-ier than Cleveland’s; Maddon’s team was the popular pick in large part because the drop-offs from its best starter to its second-, third-, and fourth-best is a lot less steep than the injury-depleted Indians’. That advantage starts to manifest now: In every subsequent game in this series, Chicago will have either the superior starter or a better chance to hit Kluber, who’ll be on short rest for the remainder of his season, barring rainouts. Better yet, the Cubs made Miller throw 46 pitches, which might take him out of Game 2.

On the offensive side, the Cubs got to see what Kyle Schwarber could do after going from facing actual pitching machines to figurative ones. Schwarber’s unboxing was a success, considering that no player has ever started a Series game after fewer regular-season PA, according to the broadcast team. He doubled off the wall against Kluber, laid off a full-count, left-on-left slider from Miller to work a walk, and didn’t cower and weep when Miller later got him to swing through a two-strike slider. His only concession to the six months he spent on the sidelines came on the bases in the seventh, when he misread a flyout in a way that would have led to a double play had Rajai Davis seen him stray from the second-base bag. Despite his lack of speed, Schwarber was an above-average base runner in 2015, so that wasn’t a standard mistake.

Some Cubs fans panicked when their team struggled to score in the NLCS against Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Kenley Jansen before breaking out against less-elite arms. Coming up empty against Kluber, Miller, and Allen is no less anxiety-inducing and no less excusable. The Cubs are a great team that looks less great when it runs into excellent pitching, which happens in the playoffs — particularly these playoffs. The Indians’ October formula is getting pretty repetitive, but as long as Cleveland keeps winning, Francona and Co. will keep doing what works.