Eyes on prize: Indians nervous about Miller pitching in WBC

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Cleveland Indians pitcher Andrew Miller throws a pitch at the Indians baseball spring training facility in Goodyear, Ariz. The left-hander, who makes his living fooling hitters and whose ability to pitch extended innings in October carried Cleveland to within one victory of a World Series title last season, will leave spring training March 2017 to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) Here’s a change or, ahem, a change-up: Andrew Miller has the Indians feeling nervous.

The nastier-than-nasty left-hander, who makes his living fooling hitters and whose ability to pitch extended innings in October carried Cleveland to within one victory of a World Series title last season, will leave spring training next month to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.

And while the Indians back Miller’s decision to pitch for his country, their blessing has raised the team’s collective blood pressure.

”We fully support him and we’re proud of him,” manager Terry Francona said. ”And our heart is in our throat.”

For good reason.

Miller may be the most valuable player on Cleveland’s roster, an inimitable All-Star who pitched beyond mammoth expectations after the Indians acquired him a trade with the New York Yankees before last July’s deadline. The 6-foot-7 lefty with the flowing hair and wicked slider was virtually unhittable during the Indians’ postseason run, going 2-0 with a 1.40 ERA and recording 30 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings – the most Ks by a reliever in major league history.

As far as Indians fans were concerned, once any game reached the fifth inning it was Miller time.

But the possibility of him getting hurt while pitching for the American team has Cleveland on edge. The WBC will require players to push themselves harder than they normally would so early in the season, and therefore risk injury. Miller is one of six players on the Indians’ 40-man roster scheduled to participate in the event, which has its share of supporters and detractors.

Like the rest of baseball, the Indians are playing along with the WBC even if it will disrupt their camp.

”I would never tell somebody not to do it,” Francona said. ”I mean, my goodness, to represent your country. It’s a huge honor, but I’d be lying if I said we’re not going to worry about him. He knows that. Now, he’s a smart kid, too. But, you start competing, that’s why they call it competition. So we’ll be happy when he comes back, just like when he left.”

Francona said Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway has already spoken to Team USA pitching coach Jeff Jones about the plans for Miller. Francona also plans to speak directly with U.S. manager Jim Leyland to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Miller has been on an accelerated program in camp to build up arm strength so he’s ready to pitch in meaningful March games while knowing his responsibility is to make sure he’s ready for the Indians from April through October.

Miller understands the inherent risks, and is willing to take them.

”The most important thing for me is to help the Indians win games this year,” he said. ”That’s who is signing my paychecks. That’s where my loyalty lies, but at the same time I think it’s a great opportunity and I think it’s actually a chance that it’s something I can get better from. I have a chance to be with a team full of the best American players. The Dominican lineup is insane. If you can survive that, you can survive anything. So I think the excitement of playing in those games, it will be nice to have that level of competition right out of the gate and kind of spice up spring training at this point in my career and I’m really looking forward to it.

”Hopefully it’s something I can look back on and say I got better for it.”

The Indians have been stung by the WBC before.

In 2013, reliever Vinnie Pestano injured his elbow while throwing too hard for the U.S. team and struggled to recover. The Indians can’t afford to have anything happen to Miller, the AL championship series MVP who is signed through 2018.

Miller knows Pestano’s story and those of other pitchers who suffered WBC-caused injuries. He’s spoken with Callaway and Cleveland’s training staff, arming himself with as much information as possible to avoid something going wrong.

”I’m going to go out there and I’m going to take care of myself off the field and do everything I can,” he said. ”I’m going to try to listen to my body and use these trainers and I think I’ll be OK. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think that was the case. Really, the most important thing is I’m here for the Cleveland Indians when it matters and I’ll do everything I can on that front and I think the positives outweigh the negatives. If I had a crystal ball, then I might make a different decision, but I don’t think anyone is going to bring one in and tell me what the case is going to be, so I’m looking forward to it.

”To this point in time I feel great, so I’m going to keep going forward with it.”