When I used to do recaps at Let’s Go Tribe, the general rule was to have them up on the site less than hour after the final out. That was great for maximizing the exposure of the recap, as well as capturing the emotion of the reviewer (having written the piece during or just after having watched it, heart rate still elevated), but it also limited the amount of sober analysis you could do. After all, when bringing up a late blown lead in your recap just moments after it happened, you aren’t likely to stop to think that maybe, perhaps that fatal pitch wasn’t that bad. The next morning you might start to think in more nuanced terms, but by then it was too late, the game window had passed, with another one just beginning. In baseball, there’s rarely time to ponder a single game because the next game is bearing down on you.
I bring up this inside baseball (no pun intended) anecdote to illustrate the effect that Game 3 had (and still has) on me. I was fully prepared to write about it on Tuesday, the day after the game, but I still felt angry about both the game and the series, so I figured it would be best to wait a day. But on Wednesday, I felt the same way, still mad as heck about it. Thursday came, and yep, still fuming about how the team played. So here I am, on Friday night, five full days after Game 3, writing about it not because the anger has subsided but because it needs to be done, else it’ll fester in the back of my mind.
When Terry Francona made the call to go to Trevor Bauer in the sixth inning, it was with the express wish that he would bridge the gap to Brad Hand. Preferably that meant Bauer would go three innings, meaning that Hand would only have to make a three-out save. How do I know this? Even if Francona didn’t explicitly state that after the game, the fact that no reliever got up until well into Bauer’s meltdown in the seventh inning would have done it just as clearly. Yes, Tito distrusted his bullpen to that extent that he was pinning his entire hopes on a starting pitcher going three innings have pitched in relief in both Games 1 and 2. And I should remind you that this in a game in which the Indians led 2-1. Despite the awful offensive production, the Indians had a chance to win Game 3 thanks to Mike Clevinger’s outstanding performance against the Astros. The bad thing about Clevinger’s outing in Game 3 is that it took him 99 pitches to get through five innings. With a functional bullpen, that kind of outing is perfectly fine for playoff game, but with the raging dumpster fire that is the Tribe pen, it wasn’t going to be good enough.
It should also be noted that the offense, which had been among the best in the league as far as run prevention in the regular season, was just as culpable for the Game 2 and 3 losses as any Andrew Miller or Trevor Bauer or Cody Allen was. A reliever with a three-run lead is going to handle a situation much differently than one with a one-run lead, and perhaps have to pitch less cautiously may have helped with Miller in Game 2 or Bauer in Game 3. As much as I’ve been ragging on the bullpen, this embarrassment of an ALDS loss was a total team effort. I admit that the Astros have an outstanding collection of pitchers, but the Indians also had both an experienced and talented group of hitters to combat them.
So when Francona called upon Bauer to pitch, he was placing the starter in as difficult a situation as you could think of. Bauer, who hadn’t pitched out of the bullpen at any time in 2017 or 2018, was throwing for the third time in four days, and he was going to have to go multiple innings against a lineup that by now was very familiar with him with a one-run lead. And the funny thing is that if Bauer can simply make a throw to second, he would have gotten through at least two innings having given the Indians a chance to win. If he doesn’t make either throwing error, he might have gotten out of the seventh with the lead.
The events after Francona pulled Bauer actually validated Tito’s decision to insert Bauer into the game in the first place. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Brad Hand, who on paper should have been the stalwarts of this series, allowed 6 runs and 1 inherited run to score in 1.2 innings pitched. When your best relievers are that bad, it’s just going to be impossible to win. Add to that a horrendous performance by the offense and some absolutely crucial errors (Melky Cabrera in Game 2, Trevor Bauer in Game 3) and you have the worst playoff performance in franchise history,* and although they had a legitimate chance to win two of the three games, statistically the series was one of the most lopsided in MLB history.
Was this historic beat down attributable to the Astros just being that much better than the Indians? I don’t think it’s that simple an explanation. The Astros were a better team than the Indians just looking a superficial things like record and the caliber of their division. The Indians were fortunate enough to play in one of the weakest divisions in modern history, while the Astros had to contend with the 97-win Oakland Athletics, who pushed them in the division race up until the final weeks of the regular season. But the Indians’ preparation/scouting (at compared to Houston’s) was lacking, not to mention the horrible execution of that game plan. Given the talent the Indians took to battle, to lose in the fashion they lost is just unacceptable.
So what now for the Indians? As mad as I still am with the way they played, they still have the makings of a great team. Their starting rotation, even accounting for some attrition (whether it be via injury or just diminishing abilities) is still among the best in baseball, and even if Michael Brantley leaves, there’s still a nice offensive core in place. The Indians have drafted well over the last several years, and that should help them be competitive on the trade market if that’s the way to want approach the offseason. A bullpen can be fixed without spending a lot of money or prospects, as opposed to the other areas on a team, though we didn’t see that play out in 2018. The AL Central still looks to be the Indians to lose even with expected improvements to every other team in the division. So this series loss, even as horrendous as it was, should not trigger any notion that the contention window is closed. But the Tribe front office has their work cut out for them, for reasons I’ll expand on in a future post.
*The Indians were swept in the 1954 World Series, outscored by 11 runs over four games. In the 2018 ALDS, the Indians were outscored by 15 runs over three game.