At the rate this is going, this series of posts is going to be rather limited.
Game 2 transpired in a way I imagined the losses to be at the beginning of the series, with the starter leaving with a small lead, only to see the bullpen give it up at the end of the game. What I did not expect is that the 6th inning of Game 2 to be such a essential distillation of that imagined outcome. Carlos Carrasco was pulled in the sixth inning after allowing an infield hit (which was actually more of an unforced decision by Josh Donaldson, who picked up a squibber off the bat of Jose Altuve, even though it was going foul, because Altuve had stumbled out of the box) and a walk. Prior to that, Carrasco had had some difficulties, but seemed in control of the game. Andrew Miller came into the game, allowed a double (that should have been scored a single and an error), then lost total command and was summarily pulled in favor of Trevor Bauer.
That inning encapsulated the team’s fatal flaw, something you could see playing out in the span of 10 minutes or so, which made it so visceral even to fans who didn’t follow the team that closely. That flaw is the bullpen, and particularly the relievers that two years ago were the bedrock on which an AL championship was built. By going to Miller in the sixth, Francona believed he was going to the Andrew Miller of 2016, but that Andrew Miller doesn’t exist right now. Perhaps in the future he’ll become a great relief ace again; I’m not declaring him finished as an effective pitcher. But I am saying that in 2018, he’s not somebody that is going to dominate a lineup, never mind get out of a jam like he was brought into in the sixth inning on Saturday. Had the Indians been able to discover/develop even a modest version of the 2016 Andrew Miller, I don’t think Francona would have brought in the 2018 Miller. Instead, with no real relief alternatives, he was banking on some residue of magic from someone who had at least done it in the past.
Which is why I would have stuck with Carrasco in that situation, even though playoff doctrine dictates that you pull a starter at the first sign of real trouble. Rely on your strengths, even if that comes with risk, rather than casting your lot with your weakness. Carrasco was facing the top of the Houston order for the third time, but given what we know about the Tribe bullpen right now, I thought it was a more acceptable risk to allow Carrasco to face the middle of the Astros lineup for the third time than to bring in Andrew Miller to face them once. If you are going to lose the series, lose it by forcing your opponent to beat your strongest part.
It also must be mentioned that the Tribe offense set the stage for that fatal flaw to be attacked. Scoring just one run in seven innings, no matter how great the pitcher, is not an acceptable outcome for an offense very capable of at the very least making a dominant pitcher work hard for his outs. This lineup is full of talented young players as well as experienced ones, and some of the at-bats against Gerrit Cole were just not up the standards that I’ve seen those players establish.
And so we’re in the lamentable prospect of being swept in the first round of the playoffs. The good news is that teams have regularly come back from 0-2 deficits to win series, something that should be seared into Tribe fans’ minds after the events of last year. The bad news is that I don’t see how this team can do it in the absence of stellar starting pitching, with two of the starts being made by a rookie pitcher who is still growing into the majors (Bieber) and a veteran pitcher who was by his standards awful in Game 1 (Kluber). And even if the Indians get great starting pitching, I’m not confident at all that they’d be able to scrape together even two shutout innings in relief.
I know a deficit brings out the pessimist in every baseball fan, even those who were pessimistic to begin with, but it’s really hard to see, after the lost opportunity in Game 2, to pull this series out. By nature, I’m an optimist when it comes to the Indians, especially over the last 5 seasons. I still think this team has at least one more run in them. But this year’s run? I think it’s over. Prove me wrong, Tribe. Please.