What a night for Cleveland sports.
The Cleveland Cavaliers raised their 2016 NBA Championship banner and then proceeded to blow out the New York Knicks in their season opener. Just across the Gateway Plaza, the Cleveland Indians were hosting Game 1 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs with visions of winning their first World Series Championship in 68 years.
Neither team disappointed and everyone went home happy. I am sure the parties on West 6th, East 4th and The Flats went well into the night. What a year and what a time to be a Cleveland fan.
The Indians now hold a 1-0 series lead in the World Series with Game 2 on tap later today, but before getting to that, let’s take a final look at Game 1…
In his first career World Series start the legend of Indians ace Corey Kluber grew astronomically.
Everyone knows he is a former Cy Young Award winner and has been one of the game’s best starting pitchers for the past four years, but few outside of Cleveland have witnessed his greatness firsthand like they did on Tuesday night.
Simply stated, Kluber wasn’t just in top form, he was in super-human form. Game 1 of the World Series always brings a lot of nerves and pressure, but he was unfazed by the moment striking out eight of the first 11 batters he faced and set a World Series record for most strikeouts by a pitcher in the first three innings of a start. His final line was a thing of beauty: 6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 9 K.
Aside from two good swings off the bat of Ben Zobrist – who scares me more than anyone in this Cubs lineup by the way – and a mistake to Kyle Schwarber that somehow stayed in the yard, there were no other good swings on Kluber through his six innings of work. His two-seamer was the best it has ever been with such great late movement that resulted in a lot of called strikes. It was almost unhittable as he would start if on the hip of a left-handed hitter, they would give up on it and then it would shoot right in on the inside edge of the plate – often resulting in a called strike three. And righties had no chance as the way it came out of his hand it looked like it would be a foot or so off the plate, they wouldn’t swing and he would dot the bottom corner for a called strike.
Kluber used that two-seamer to perfection the first time through the Cubs order. Give the Cubs credit, they made an adjustment after the first time through the order as only one hitter went down on strikes the final three innings Kluber pitched, but Kluber also changed things up as well as he changed his pitch sequencing up a little the second time through which led to a lot of off balance swings on offspeed pitches that resulted in some weak pop ups.
The important thing is they got the big start from Kluber and with the way he shut the Cubs down, perhaps he also got into their heads a little to setup his next appearance against them in Game 4 – and potentially Game 7.
Francona’s unusual call
Even with Kluber dominating into the seventh inning and only at 88 pitches, Terry Francona pulled him out in favor of Andrew Miller. Whether it was because Zobrist led the inning off with a hit and Schwarber was coming to bat – who hit one off the wall in his prior at bat – or because Francona wanted to keep Kluber under 90 pitches so he can bring him back on short rest for Game 4, we may never truly know. Miller was up in the pen the inning before getting loose so going into the seventh inning it really looked like the plan was for Kluber to face Zobrist and no matter what happened he would be taken out so Miller could come in.
It is an interesting strategy as few managers would ever take their ace out of a 3-0 game in Game 1 of the World Series with the way Kluber was throwing. Especially when he was only at 88 pitches and conceivably could have gone another two innings. But few managers have Andrew Miller in their bullpen, and as we have seen this postseason, Francona has hardly done things “by the book.” It is an interesting strategy by Francona. On one hand, he had the option of going longer with Kluber for another inning, maybe even two, in order to save the bullpen for Game 2. On the other hand, he had the option to save some bullets in Kluber’s arm so he is as fresh as possible for a Game 4 start on short rest and he could just go to Miller and Cody Allen to close out the final three innings.
Francona chose the latter, and while it worked out for Game 1, it will be interesting to see what kind of impact his decision has on Game 2 because Andrew Miller was used to his fullest extent throwing 46 pitches in two innings of work. With Game 2 more likely to be a bullpen matchup game the last three to four innings, having Miller on a limited basis - if at all – will be something to watch. You really can’t grade out Francona’s decision to pull Kluber until we see the impact it has on Game 2.
In the end, Francona and the Indians did what they needed to do and that was win Game 1. It was a must win for the Indians with Kluber on the hill. With the Cubs holding the starting pitching matchup advantage in Game 2 and 3, and potentially the rest of the series since Kluber will be on short rest in two more potential starts, they had to win this game to set a tone and put some pressure on the Cubs. Now, the pressure is on the Cubs to win Game 2 because they don’t want to go home down 2-0 knowing they essentially have to sweep at home to have a chance to get back into the series. There is some pressure on the Indians as well in Game 2, but everyone who is not an Indians fan expects them to lose this game, which is fine since they have played the underdog role so well this postseason.
Miller proves “almost” human
Speaking of Andrew Miller, he grinded his way through his two innings throwing 46 pitches of which just 26 were strikes. He walked two batters, which is very un-Andrew Miller like, and he even gave up two hits – one on an 0-2 pitch – which were especially un-Andrew Miller like. He faced 10 batters in total allowing four of them to reach base and struck out there, but the most important stat is that even though he showed a few chinks in the armor, he never gave in and left the bases loaded in the seventh and runners on first and third in the eighth.
Whether it was just rust or the heavy workload is starting to catch up with him, Miller was off with his command. He had trouble locating his slider and just missed several times on the opposite arm side of the plate. Now, some of this was due to a strange strike zone from the umpire which appeared to shrink when he stepped on the mound as there were several ball calls on the right-handed edge of the plate that were questionable, and in several cases there were balls right down the middle the umpire called balls. I don’t know if the umpire just had a bad view/angle he was calling strikes from as he had his head placed over Roberto Perez’s left shoulder which meant he may have lost track of the ball at times due to Miller’s arm slot and angle as he released the ball which happens on Perez’s right shoulder. Some of the credit also has to go to the Cubs as they showed some insane discipline not to swing at several borderline pitches.
It remains to be seen if Miller’s struggles in this game has any bearing on the rest of this series. The Cubs have to like that everyone got at least one look against him and even though they did not come through with any runs they showed they can have some success against him and that he is not invincible. Or, it could play out that the Cubs lost their one chance to get to an erratic Miller and that he is his typical dominant self the rest of this series. However things play out from here with the Cubs hitters versus Miller, I am sure that we will look back at his Game 1 appearance as a sign of vulnerability for Miller or a lost opportunity for the Cubs.
Robocop – Here to Protect and Serve
Indians catcher Roberto Perez has enjoyed a coming out party of sorts in front of the nation. His defensive prowess, pitch framing and game calling have been on full display in all nine games he has played this postseason. All of those things are glossed over by the fans of other teams who only look at the box scores for the offensive stats of players for the teams they don’t follow.
Perez used Game 1 of the World Series to put forth arguably his best showing at the plate to date in his entire career – minors and big leagues included. He not only slugged two home runs and drove in four runs on those blasts, the swings he put on them and the power he generated was impressive. This was great to see and he is swinging with a lot of confidence right now at the plate as he has come up with several big hits this postseason. He’s not a star by any means and will always have a complementary role in the lineup, so any offense at this point is a bonus.
That being said, it is important to keep expectations in check with Perez. Already I am seeing people throw out assumptions that he is turning into a good hitter. No, he’s not a very good hitter. He never has been and probably never will be. His calling card has always been his defense, and at the plate he’s always shown a disciplined enough approach to draw walks and put up good at bats with some occasional pop to offset the inconsistent hitting. It is also important to note that he is still only hitting .222 with a .300 on-base percentage this postseason. Also, that he hit .183 with a .285 on-base percentage and .102 isolated power percentage during the regular season.
Some may say Perez came on late in the year, but again, that is the emotion of the moment and how two very good games at the plate in the postseason can influence the perception someone has of a player. Again, he only hit .182 with a .270 on-base percentage in August and had a .233 average and .266 on-base percentage in September. There really has been no sign of him “turning the corner” as an offensive player near the end of the season. The only corner he turned was getting out of the awful funk he was in to start the year (2-for-40) to get back to his career norms.
What Perez has done is taken advantage of the moment and come through when the Indians have needed him most this postseason both with his defense and with a few timely hits. That’s a great thing and should be applauded. Don’t take that too far and make of it more than it has to be. Let’s hope for another big hit or two, but at the same time, let’s also keep the expectations in check for the rest of this series and his career.
- You have to love the Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez performance in Game 1 as each went 3-for-4 with a double in this game. The two young guns are staples in the Indians infield for the foreseeable future and the nation got a good long look at two players which should impact the Indians offensively and defensively for years to come. No moment seems too big for Lindor right now as he is now hitting .371 (13-for-35) in nine games this postseason with 2 HR, 4 RBI and a 1.017 OPS. He’s been the only everyday player to really do much offensively this postseason on a consistent basis. Hopefully, Ramirez’s big World Series debut is a sign he is coming out of his postseason funk. He entered the game just 6-for-27, but is now hitting a solid .290 with 2 RBI and .688 OPS in nine games. Lindor has been getting on base a lot, and with Napoli struggling behind Lindor, getting Ramirez going could be key to generating more runs.
- Another interesting decision from Terry Francona was going to Cody Allen in the ninth inning even though they were up 6-0. Now, I get that he probably wanted to get Allen some work since he had not thrown in five days, so that makes sense; however, what I didn’t like is it offered the Cubs a chance to see him and get a feel for how he would pitch them – two things which may help them when they face him again later this series. I also thought Francona might use the opportunity to get Danny Salazar into a game to shake off some rust and show what he could do. If there ever was an opportune time, that was it. But by not using Salazar there or even considering it, it shows that Salazar is not as much in the plans as some people think and that his use in the World Series may be extremely limited. It was a clear sign that Salazar is only going to be used in emergency if a game goes extra innings and potentially only as a piggyback option to Ryan Merritt in Game 5.
- Looking ahead to Game 2, the Indians will send Trevor Bauer to the mound against Jake Arietta. This matchup clearly favors the Cubs, but as we have seen all postseason, that has been the case in any non-Kluber start yet the Indians are 5-0 in those matchups. The hope is that Bauer can get through five innings and keep the Cubs lineup in check and that the Indians offense can continue their early game magic and scrape together a few runs to have a lead so the Indians can play the bullpen matchup game the rest of the way.
- Arietta is one of the game’s best pitchers, though he has been ordinary so far this postseason allowing 6 runs (all earned) on 12 hits, 2 homers, 1 walk and with 10 strikeouts in 11.0 innings over two starts. He slipped some this season (18-8, 3.10 ERA, .194 AVG) compared to his incredible 2015 season (22-6, 1.77 ERA, .185 AVG), and a lot of that had to do with a rapid rise in his walk rate going from a 1.9 BB/9 last season to a 3.5 BB/9 this season. He’s still tough as ever to get a hit off of and he gets a good amount of strikeouts, but the hope is that Indians hitters are patient enough to let those command issues crop up again for him so they can potentially put together a rally or two to score three or four runs off him. If Bauer can minimize the damage, that might be enough to put the Indians in a position to win and go to their bullpen to close out a win.