CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Indians have a 1-0 lead over the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series because they found a way to stifle Aaron Judge. They won behind a momentous contribution from Jay Bruce, the veteran outfielder who has fit seamlessly into the mix since his arrival from the New York Mets by trade in late July. And as an array of roadkill teams can attest from some unpleasant encounters with the Tribe since late August, this Cleveland team has some amazing karma going on at the moment.
Beyond the box score and the postgame postmortems, the Indians lead in the series because one man’s faith in another paid dividends beyond what either might have imagined. The Indians’ 4-0 victory Thursday night was a tribute to a manager with the courage of his convictions, and a pitcher who was mentally and physically prepared for his moment on the big stage.
Terry Francona has a .629 winning percentage (39-23) in the postseason — the second best in history behind Joe McCarthy — so he probably merits a lifetime dispensation from second-guessing in October. But he still elicited some quizzical looks when he chose Trevor Bauer over Corey Kluber in the series opener. Kluber is the frontrunner for the American League Cy Young Award for a reason, and Francona’s decision to bypass him carried an element of risk in a five-game series.
So much for that storyline. After the Tribe dispensed with the Yankees before LeBron James and 37,611 other red-clad true believers at Progressive Field, Francona’s genius-in-residence reputation remained intact. Not that he really cares.
“I kind of live by, ‘You do what you think is right,'” Francona said late Thursday night. “You answer the questions, and then in the morning, I don’t run to see how I’m perceived. You have to have confidence in what you’re doing. And it’s not always going to work. We can’t win every game.
“But I was completely comfortable with our decision to do what we did, for a number of reasons.”
Francona probably didn’t envision that Bauer would outdo two Hall of Famers when he took the mound, but that’s the way it transpired. Bauer didn’t allow a hit until Aaron Hicks doubled off the left-field wall with one out in the sixth inning. His 5⅓ no-hit innings were the longest in Cleveland’s postseason history — surpassing the previous mark of four innings reached by Bob Feller in the 1948 World Series and Early Wynn in the 1954 Fall Classic.
When Starlin Castro singled in the seventh and Francona came out to lift Bauer for Andrew Miller, the crowd responded with a full-throated roar of appreciation.
“I thought he pitched his heart out,” Francona said. “When the moment arose, he attacked it. He embraced everything that was thrown at him tonight, and his poise was tremendous. I mean, all the way around.”
The outing validated the perception that Bauer has arrived as a big-time guy at age 26. It was fueled by a late-season surge, and gained currency in testimonials from teammates who recalled numerous examples of his newfound maturity. The old Trevor Bauer would routinely stew over broken-bat singles and let minor setbacks get in his head. The new and improved version gets the ball from the catcher, stares in for the sign and stoically moves forward.
While Bauer appreciated the vote of confidence from Francona in choosing him to start Game 1, the high stakes and surrounding scrutiny didn’t change his approach one iota.
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“Obviously, him having the confidence in me to start is big,” Bauer said. “But it’s just baseball. Whenever I pitch, the process is the same. You come up with a game plan. You talk about it. You get on the same page with everybody. You go out there and try to execute it, and the results are going to be what they are. Tonight was a good night for us.”
Just about a year ago, Bauer sliced his finger while doing routine maintenance on one of his drones and bled all over the pitchers’ mound at Rogers Centre in Toronto. He was admittedly “miserable” over his failure to contribute after logging a sorry 6.00 ERA in April and May. But Bauer stuck with it, altered the grip on his slider and progressively made greater use of his curveball in the manner of Barry Zito, his favorite pitcher and role model during Bauer’s formative years.
The curveball played a major role in Bauer’s coming-out party. In his three confrontations with Judge, Bauer threw a total of 16 pitches — five fastballs, two cutters and nine curves. Most of them were tight and well-located in the 77- to 79-mph range, and Judge was powerless to do much against them. Judge went down looking twice, and swung and missed at another curve and took first base when it eluded catcher Roberto Perez and rolled back to the screen.
If Bauer keeps pitching with this degree of effectiveness, he might reach the point where people focus exclusively on his talent and stop referring to him as “quirky” in conversation.
“He’s very committed to his craft,” Bruce said. “He takes a lot of pride in doing the work behind the scenes. I know a lot of people don’t get to see that. But there’s a preparation and a focus, and he believes in what he’s doing. I think that’s one of the things that makes him most successful.”
Dozens of stories have been written about Bauer’s unorthodox training regimen and alleged hardheadedness through the years. The Indians could have butted heads with him, as the Arizona Diamondbacks did before throwing up their hands in exasperation and packing him off to Cleveland as part of a three-team trade with the Cincinnati Reds in 2012. But the Indians gave Bauer the freedom to be himself, and they struck enough compromises with him that he was able to maximize his potential.
Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who has overseen Bauer’s personal and professional growth over the past five seasons, doesn’t think Bauer is any better equipped to handle the pressure of the big stage than he was at 23 or 24. But he sees countless examples of ways that Bauer has transformed himself into a better pitcher.
“I would say Trevor has always been more of a big-game guy, wanting that spotlight and things like that,” Callaway said. “I don’t think he would have handled pitching ahead of Kluber any differently [two or three years ago].
“I just think the pitcher you see now is a byproduct of all the things he’s thought about along the way. He is who he is today — and did what he did tonight — because of the way he’s prepared himself since he was probably 10 years old. If Trevor had just listened to everything we wanted him to do, or any of his pitching coaches wanted him to do, he wouldn’t be as good as he is today.”
That precocious 10-year-old grew up and pitched the game of his life Thursday night at age 26. Trevor Bauer deserves a lot of credit for rising to the occasion. But then, so does his manager, for having the faith to let him try.