On Thursday morning, my colleague Michael Baumann opined that Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer could be his team’s unsung October hero. “The Indians need [starters Corey] Kluber and [Carlos] Carrasco to be that good if they’re going to win the World Series,” he wrote, “but if Bauer gives them a reliable no. 3 starter, they’ll be hard to beat.”
Six and two-third innings of two-hit, no-run, eight-strikeout ball later, that assessment appears accurate. Cleveland looked every bit a World Series favorite in its playoff opener, stymying the Yankees’ hot bats and producing from all spots in the batting order to take Game 1 of the ALDS, 4-0. Every starting position player reached base, save centerfielder Jason Kipnis, who contributed with the night’s defensive highlight.
But the story of the game was Bauer, who looked unhittable, and the spin forward also revolves around Cleveland’s starting pitcher, who makes his team practically unbeatable if he pitches like this. The Yankees now face likely Cy Young winner Kluber in a must-win Game 2 on Friday night, as the Indians’ procession of aces moves one spot down the line. New York might not score a run all series.
Once a pitcher defined by his eccentric personality and erratic performances on the mound, Bauer has matured—at least in the latter respect—into one of the American League’s top pitchers. Over his last 13 games in the regular season (12 starts), Bauer posted a 2.42 ERA and struck out 85 batters in 78 innings, and he continued that run of excellence on Thursday. After shuffling his rotation order to give Bauer the Game 1 start, Terry Francona looked like an October genius; with another display of the starter-to–Andrew Miller–to–Cody Allen chain on the mound, the strategy he concocted last year looks primed to succeed once again.
Bauer’s approach was simple, as he predominantly mixed fastballs with tumbling curveballs, the latter a pitch whose increased usage coincided with his 2017 surge. That two-pitch combination—along with some help from catcher Roberto Pérez, one of the sport’s top pitch framers—repeatedly froze New York hitters: Five of his eight K’s came on called strike threes, and no Yankee ever looked especially comfortable at the plate. Aaron Judge struck out in each of his three at-bats against Bauer; Gary Sánchez struck out once and grounded into a double play. The only blemishes on Bauer’s pitching line were a pair each of walks and base hits, though he didn’t allow more than a single baserunner in any inning and allowed just one man past first base.
Last time I talked to Bauer he was *very* receptive to the 80% breaking ball idea— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) October 6, 2017
Bauer struggled in last year’s postseason, running a 5.27 ERA and not making it out of the fifth inning in any of his four starts. (One of those starts was shortened to four batters after an untimely drone injury.) That ineffectiveness exacerbated Cleveland’s extant pitching shallowness, as both Carrasco and Danny Salazar suffered September injuries, leaving Corey Kluber as the lone reliable starter in Francona’s rotation. No matter: Cleveland still reached the World Series and came a single swing away from winning the trophy. It’s not hard to imagine what this roster—which since last year also added Jay Bruce, who drove in or scored every run on Tuesday, and cleanup hitter Edwin Encarnación—can accomplish with an actual whole staff.