TORONTO — There hadn’t been many tense moments in the Indians’ playoff run—they hadn’t lost a game since Sept. 28, hadn’t even trailed at the end of an inning since Oct. 6—but this, surely, was the most stressful yet.
A rotation that was already down to three after injuries knocked out its Nos. 2 and 3 starters had been further tested when Trevor Bauer sliced open the pinkie on his pitching hand while repairing a drone a day before his scheduled start. He’d been pushed back and Josh Tomlin had won Game 2 in his place, but Cleveland needed Bauer to deliver a strong outing in Game 3 and give the team some breathing room going into a stretch of potentially weaker starters. But it took only 21 pitches—and two outs—for the blood gushing from his finger to become such a problem that Blue Jays manager John Gibbons asked the umpires to intervene.
So as manager Terry Francona, whom everyone calls “Tito,” walked out to the mound to hear the verdict on whether Bauer would be allowed to remain in the game, his stomach should have been churning. His hands should have been shaking. His mind should have been racing. Instead, he was focused … on the scoreboard behind third base, which was displaying the amount raised so far in the Jays Care Foundation’s 50/50 lottery: $64,063 and climbing before his eyes.
My goodness! he thought. I gotta get in on that.
Yeah, the Indians are loose.
“The phrase of our postseason is ‘Tighten up,’” Bauer explained in the clubhouse moments after Cleveland clinched its first trip to the World Series since 1997 with a 3–0 win in Game 5 of the ALCS. “That’s what everybody else does in the postseason. You gotta play as tight as possible.”
The motto is in jest, of course, but whatever this team is doing is working, so much so that the outcome at times feels predetermined. When relief ace Andrew Miller entered in the sixth inning with one on and one out and Josh Donaldson—followed by Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki—due up, third base coach Mike Sarbaugh turned to pitching coach Mickey Callaway in the dugout. “One-pitch double play,” he said. Donaldson grounded Miller’s first offering to shortstop Francisco Lindor, who threw to second baseman Jason Kipnis, who fired to first baseman Carlos Santana. Miller pumped his first and screamed; Sarbaugh and Callaway just smiled.
There was a lot of levity in the dugout on a day the Indians grabbed a lead four batters into the game, on DH Mike Napoli’s double, and never gave it up. First baseman Carlos Santana hit a solo home run in the third and leftfielder Coco Crisp added another an inning later. (“He threw me a changeup,” Crisp said afterward. “If he’d thrown me a fastball he would’ve gotten me out.”) Ryan Merritt, a 24-year-old with all of 11 2/3 career major league innings, took a perfect game into the fourth inning on the strength of his 86-mph heater. At one point, the scoreboard flashed 83. Francona stared at Callaway. “Was that a fastball?” he asked, incredulous.
Merritt kept the game scoreless through 4 1/3 innings until Francona pulled him, to a standing ovation from the small pocket of Indians fans above first base, after Russell Martin blooped a single into no-man’s land behind second base for only the Jays’ second hit of the night. He admitted afterward that the team derived some delight from rightfielder Jose Bautista’s comments the night before that he expected the young lefty would be “shaking in his boots” at the prospect of facing Toronto’s lineup. At the beginning of the postgame celebration, Merritt, a Texan, pulled a pair of cowboy boots from beneath the plastic tarp covering his locker and held them aloft. “Send ‘em to Joey Bats!” shouted Corey Kluber, who started Games 1 and 4.
Merritt’s was just another in a line of exceptional pitching performances for Cleveland. That Bryan Shaw, Miller and closer Cody Allen followed with another 4 2/3 shutout frames surprised no one.
All series, the Indians pounded the Blue Jays’ potent righthanded hitters—no other team in baseball had as many righties with 20 home runs as Toronto’s five—with outside pitches. The fearsome bats went silent, slugging .208 on such offerings. (League average this season was .319.) Cleveland shut Toronto out twice in five games, days after blanking the similarly imposing Red Sox lineup once in its three-game ALDS sweep. Miller won ALCS MVP, and probably would have won ALDS MVP if the award existed, but it could just as easily have gone to the bullpen as a whole. It pitched 22 of 44 innings in the series and had an ERA of 1.64 and a 27:3 strikeout-to-walk rate. And it did it on very little margin of error: Although Cleveland allowed just eight runs over the five games, it scored only 12, a ratio it will likely need to improve if it is to win its first World Series since 1948, over whoever emerges from the Cubs-Dodgers NLCS. Wednesday’s three-run win was the biggest cushion the Indians had all series.
But that was all they needed, and after the game, as they doused one another in champagne, Francona took a moment to revel in the accomplishment of the team he loves. “We always said if we could do it with this group it would be so special,” he said, “because this is as close to a family feel as you can get in a professional setting.”
At one point, Bauer grabbed a bottle and popped the cork. “Whoa!” said a handful of unsuspecting teammates. “Don’t worry, I aimed for the ceiling,” he assured them, and grinned, looking down at the plastic-wrapped bandage on his right hand. “I believe in safety first.”
Bauer fits in perfectly on what he called “one of the loosest” teams in baseball. Francona helps cultivate that environment, playing cribbage before games and promising players he’ll stick with them even when they struggle. (“Hey, your hits come in bunches,” he told outfielder Rajai Davis in April, when he was hitting .143. Davis hit .254 the rest of the way.) He calls the bullpen during games to let them know how he expects the late innings to play out so no one is caught off-guard. He has been known to cry when good things happen to his players, on or off the field. And he is always looking out for them.
Shortly after being informed that because of the early game time, the team could fly back to Cleveland that night, Napoli was charging through the clubhouse when he saw team president Chris Antonetti. “Let’s go to Vegas!” he suggested.
“We’re stopping on our way back when we win the Series,” Antonetti assured him. “Don’t worry, Tito had that covered two months ago.”