CLEVELAND — It happened again, to Toronto on Saturday evening. A waking nightmare, of exactly two hours and 44 minutes in length.
If the Blue Jays experienced a terrible sense of déjà vu during and after Game 2 of this best-of-seven American League Championship Series, it wasn’t only because it precisely matched Friday’s Game 1 in duration. The Indians’ starter held them down—again. Andrew Miller wiped them out—again. Cody Allen closed them out—again. Francisco Lindor, the star 22-year-old shortstop, drove in the game-winning run—again. Toronto lost—again.
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There were, to be sure, a few slight differences between the ballgames. The Blue Jays managed to score a run this time, although a 2–1 loss is hardly any better than the previous evening’s 2–0 margin. The Indians had to use a reliever aside from Miller and Allen: Bryan Shaw, for one out. Miller got six outs, against Friday’s five, though he struck out five Blue Jays with his impossible slider for the second straight night.
The most significant difference was the identity, and the résumé, of the Indians’ starter who befuddled the Blue Jays, allowing a seamless transition to Miller and friends. On Friday, it was Corey Kluber, the hard-throwing, Cy Young-winning ace. On Saturday, it was Josh Tomlin, who can’t throw faster than 91 and who allowed 36 home runs during the regular season, the third most in the majors.
Prior to Game 2, Tomlin—who was pressed into duty when the original starter, Trevor Bauer, cut his pinky while repairing a drone on Thursday night—seemed just the opponent to end the Blue Jays’ streak of offensively deficient games at one: a homer-prone pitcher against a team of sluggers, and one two months removed from an August in which he had an ERA of 11.48. But a reinvented Tomlin took the mound on Saturday, with a strategy that the normally poker-faced Kluber might have previewed after Friday’s win. It was predicated on the Indians’ defensively exquisite infield. “It’s a huge relief, lift, whatever you want to call it, knowing that pretty much if they put the ball in play on the ground in the infield, it’s an out,” Kluber said then.
So Tomlin’s goal, as he conspired with catcher Roberto Perez and pitching coach Mickey Callaway, was to get Toronto to chop the ball into the turf. But how to do it? He had not proven a groundball pitcher of much note during the regular season, inducing them 44% of the time, which ranked 38th of 73 qualified starters. But he had also relied heavily on his fastballs, a four-seamer and a cutter: those pitches accounted for 69% of his total.
Meanwhile, he delivered the pitches most likely to lead to grounders—his curveball and his sinker, both of which, at the best, plummet toward the plate, just 23% of the time, in large measure because they weren’t often particularly good. According to Fan Graphs’ pitch value metric, his curveball, for one, was the game’s fifth least effective, among the 61 starters whose arsenals contained the pitch. “Some days it’s good, some days it’s not, and you’ve got to adjust accordingly,” Tomlin said. Still: he was going to try it.
Before the game, Perez had one message to Tomlin. “If you’re going to throw that breaking ball,” the catcher told him, “you gotta bury it.”
He did, and he used it to bury the Jays. He flipped his usual repertoire upside down. Of the 85 pitches he threw, 37, or 44%, were fastballs or cutters, while 45, or 53%, were curves or sinkers. He delivered his curveball 36 times, and kept it low. Said Callaway, “It was the best I’ve ever seen it.” The result was that Toronto hit just two balls in the air: a third inning RBI double by Josh Donaldson and a sixth inning pop out to center by Edwin Encarnacion. Otherwise, the Jays lineup hit twelve grounders—two of them singles, ten of them scooped up for outs. When Tomlin exited with two outs in the sixth, they had also struck out six times and walked twice. Then, it was Miller time.
The talk this postseason has centered upon game planning and the proper deployment of relief pitchers, and while those things aren’t quite so hard when you’ve got the absurdly dominant Miller at your disposal, the Indians’ approach to both was again beyond reproach. But, as Allen explained, it is one thing to conjure a game plan. “It’s another for those guys to take that information and use it,” he said. Miller and Allen seem like sure things right now, effectively shortening games to six innings for Cleveland’s opponents, but especially given the ways the Jays themselves have pitched—allowing just four runs in two games—it wouldn’t have worked without Tomlin’s unlikely brilliance. Managers and coaches can pull whatever strings, in whatever order, they like, but it’s the players who must perform.
Just after the final out on Saturday, Jason Bere, the Indians’ bullpen coach, a former 11-year starting pitcher who is universally known as “J.B.” in the clubhouse, approached four of the men who remained out in the ’pen and passed along a question from Callaway. Cody Anderson, Mike Clevinger, Jeff Manship and Zach McAllister have each been members of the Indians’ playoff roster since the beginning, but in name only, thanks to the effectiveness and longevity of the clubs’ starters and top few relievers. None of them had thrown a pitch in the ALDS against the Red Sox, and they haven’t against the Blue Jays.
So it was that, 20 minutes after Allen had recorded the final out, as fans were still triumphantly filing out and the game’s stars were showering and conducting interviews, the quartet began a simulated game. They threw at full bore, one by one, from the Progressive Field mound to several reserve hitters, including Yan Gomes and Michael Martinez. “Well, when you use three relievers and the rest of your guys haven’t pitched in two weeks, you like them to get some work in,” said team president Chris Antonetti, who watched the session with his top lieutenants from behind the batting cage. “Still a long way to go.”
These are the pitchers that the Blue Jays want to see, when it counts. They combined for a 4.77 ERA this year, and the reason that manager Terry Francona hasn’t used them so far is because he hasn’t been forced to. Toronto’s task, then is to disrupt Francona’s script by forcing the starter out early with enough outs remaining such that even Miller and Allen—and Shaw and Dan Otero—can’t cover them. It should be a more achievable task at home, in Toronto, starting with Monday night’s Game 3. “Get in front of our crowd, maybe that will energize us and maybe get some things going,” said manager John Gibbons. “But our back’s against the wall. That’s pretty obvious.”
Just three of the 27 teams who have previously found themselves in the Blue Jays’ unenviable situation—down 2–0 in a league championship series—have come back to win. There is, however, a way for Toronto to become the fourth, and there is still enough time to stop their nightmare from recurring.