CLEVELAND — The Indians' bullpen at Progressive Field sits beyond the outfield fence in right-centerfield, surrounded on three of its four sides by fans. On Friday night, a small commotion went up out there in the top of the sixth inning of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, spreading from the fans closest to the bullpen out toward the adjoining sections. In a scoreless game lacking big-buzz moments to that point, this was buzzworthy: Andrew Miller was warming up.
If only the Indians could get a lead on the Blue Jays, they could deploy their bullpen ace in his optimum manner, lock down a relatively low-stress win and still get to bed at a decent hour, all things that had been rarities in this wild postseason. But in short order, it all happened.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor delivered the lead, with a rocket over the wall in the bottom of the sixth. Miller entered to raucous cheers from the sellout crowd of 37,727 in the seventh, mowed down five of the six Blue Jays he faced — those outs going strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout — and gave way to closer Cody Allen.
Three outs later, the Indians had a 2-0 victory, in a tidy 2 hours, 44 minutes, with Game 2 of the ALCS on Saturday afternoon. The Indians are three wins from their first World Series berth since 1997 and seven away from their first championship since 1948.
It is doubtful any of the rest can be drawn up any better for the Indians than this one, which featured 61/3 scoreless innings from ace Corey Kluber, outstanding infield defense, Lindor's game-breaking homer and a typically brilliant outing from Miller, arguably the most valuable weapon in the entire postseason.
"It wasn't like we faced the average Joe out there and he struggled," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "Kluber is one of the elite pitchers in the game."
Lindor, the Indians' preternaturally talented shortstop, broke a taut pitchers' duel open with one out in the sixth, ripping an 0-and-2 change-up from starter Marco Estrada over the wall in right-center for a two-run home run. Lindor's exuberant trip around the bases was sprinter-fast, especially considering he managed to squeeze in some hand-claps, military-style salutes and chest-taps along the way.
"I believe in my team. I believe in what we have," said Lindor. "We're just trying to do our thing.
"I thought (Kevin) Pillar was going to catch it. As soon as it went out, I put my hands out. I looked at the dugout and everybody was going insane."
Estrada allowed six hits in Toronto's first complete game all year, but made one costly mistake.
"I was trying to bounce it, to be honest with you," Estrada said. "Good hitters are going to hit it out and he's a good hitter."
Less than a month ago, the first-place Indians played a late-September game at Progressive Field in front of an announced crowd of 13,623. On Friday night, nearly three times that many packed the joint, hoping for the same thing: a lead delivered in the late innings to Miller and his bullpen cohorts. The trick was in getting it there.
Of the numerous plagues to have beset Cleveland this fall — including, but not limited to, an infestation of midges, a barrage of presidential candidate television ads and Robert Griffin III — the contagion of injuries to the Indians' pitching staff, just as the stakes were getting highest, is perhaps the most perplexing.
Stalwarts Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were injured last month.
Into this mess Friday night strode Kluber, the only sure thing in the Indians' piecemeal rotation.
Kluber, the 2014 AL Cy Young Award recipient and an 18-game winner this year, had to pitch through high-stress jams almost constantly, with two baserunners reaching in each of the first three innings, and he didn't have a clean 1-2-3 inning until the fifth. But the Blue Jays, who had averaged nearly seven runs in the playoffs to reach this ALCS, failed to plate a run.
"I don't think it was a lack of something we did," Gibbons said. "I just thought they pitched that well, as did we."
The Blue Jays' rotation has the opposite problem of the Indians — it had too many Game 1 candidates, and the choice of Estrada over the likes of Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ or Marcus Stroman might as well have been made by drawing names out of a hat, so tightly bunched are they in ability.
Estrada outpitched Kluber for the first five innings, allowing only a quartet of weak singles as he entered the sixth. But then he issued his first walk of the game, to Jason Kipnis with out in the sixth, and Lindor followed with his blast. Any deficit in the late innings was bound to be deadly for the Blue Jays, because of Miller's looming presence, and this one proved to be so.
Fifteen of the 18 games in this postseason had been decided by three or fewer runs, including nine — and all four ALDS clinchers — by just one run. October baseball is not for the faint of heart, or the flimsy of bullpen.
"Kluber is pretty good, that's all I know," Gibbons said. "He's got arguably the best right-hand breaking ball in the game. And he kept us honest with enough fastballs. And he's got that razor-blade slider that's tough to do anything with. A big strikeout pitch for him. He gets a lot of weak contact on them, really. If you're a fan of pitching it was a dream game for you.''
Toronto second baseman Devon Travis appeared to aggravate a right knee injury. He left the game, and an MRI is scheduled. "It hurts pretty bad," he said. "I jarred my knee a little bit. I felt a sharp pain in my knee."
The Indians got their first ALCS win since 2007.
DRONE INJURY: Indians right-hander Trevor Bauer cut open his right pinkie finger while repairing a drone — he likes to build and fly them — and won't start tonight's Game 2 of the ALCS. Cleveland manager Terry Francona kept a sense of humor about the setback: "It's kind of self-explanatory. Probably everybody in here probably at some point or another had a drone-related problem." Bauer needed several stitches to close the cut on top of his right pinkie, injured as he repaired a propeller. Josh Tomlin, who was scheduled to pitch Game 3 in Toronto on Monday, will replace Bauer. Hand specialist Thomas Graham said he believed Bauer could pitch in Game 3. Bauer's penchant for drones is just one interesting thing about the 25-year-old, whose pregame routines, unorthodox training methods and analytical mind have irritated people. But Francona wasn't upset. "This was not malicious," he said. "He could have been opening a box in the kitchen. Just happened."
WEARY DODGERS: The Dodgers arrived in Chicago on Friday, fresh off a 4-3 victory at Washington in Game 5 of their NL Division Series that sent them to an NLCS matchup against the Cubs. Los Angeles used six pitchers Thursday night, including closer Kenley Jansen for a career-high 51 pitches and ace Clayton Kershaw for the final two outs. The taxing finale in Washington left few options for tonight's NLDS Game 1. Kenta Maeda will start, with Kershaw possible for Game 2. Maeda has lost three straight starts, lasting three innings in his first career playoff appearance Monday. "We've been relying a lot on our relief pitchers, so I'm just focused on throwing quality innings as long as I can," Maeda said.
NATIONALS: Catcher Wilson Ramos had surgery on his right knee. Rehabilitation is expected to take 6-8 months.
WHITE SOX: Chicago is sticking within the organization to fill new manager Rick Renteria's staff. Joe McEwing replaces Renteria as bench coach after spending the past five seasons as third-base coach. He previously managed in the White Sox system. Nick Capra takes over as third-base coach after five years as Chicago's director of player development. He is entering his 22nd season in the organization and first on the White Sox coaching staff. Curt Hasler takes over as bullpen coach after serving as the organization's pitching coordinator from 2011-16. Pitching coach Don Cooper and hitting coach Todd Steverson will return, as will Daryl Boston (first base), Mark Salas (bullpen catcher) and Greg Sparks (assistant hitting).