TORONTO – In the days leading up to Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, when Trevor Bauer sat in the Cleveland Indians’ trainer’s room getting treatment on his mangled right pinky, he kept asking the medical staff to use a soldering iron and burn shut the wound he suffered at a hotel when a drone he was repairing went haywire and sliced his finger from the nail to second knuckle. They laughed, even though they understood Bauer was dead serious and regretted not cauterizing it himself the night of the injury.
“I even had a soldering iron in my hotel room,” Bauer said. “Instead of going to the ER, I probably should’ve sealed it closed myself.”
Had Bauer done so, he may well have robbed the ALCS of the instantly iconic moment that unfolded fewer than 20 pitches into Game 3. (Not to mention risked infection, burns and other undesirable conditions.) Because major league rules prohibit any foreign substance on a pitcher’s hand, Bauer could not wear the gauze that snuggled his pinky in the days since the injury. All dried blood and stitches and awfulness, like a Walking Dead gore bomb except totally real, Bauer’s exposed pinky grossed out teammates and TV audiences alike, and that was before it started to bleed on the mound.
Four batters into the game, drip, drip, drip it went, torture for Bauer, who understood what it meant. Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons asked home-plate umpire Brian Gorman to look at the finger, and out of the Indians’ dugout came manager Terry Francona, who said: “It’s not that bad!” At which point Gorman pointed to the pool of blood on the mound and stains all over Bauer’s pants and shoes and said: “That’s a lot of blood.” Which prompted Bauer to scream “F—!” because he knew he was done after only two outs.
And all of this, if you can believe, was a mere preamble of what was to come. Because the ensuing three hours, two minutes, the direct result of a single propeller on a quadcopter drone throttling when it shouldn’t have, offered an all-time great managing effort, which is saying something for Terry Francona, the man who stood in the dugout when the Boston Red Sox won their first championship in 86 years.
This – this was a win with an ordinary score, 4-2, in a game that was anything but ordinary. This was a manager who had been lauded for his bullpen usage during this postseason offering his piece de resistance: a seven-pitcher evening of cobbled-together madness in which every lever he pulled came up BAR BAR BAR. This was the Indians’ sixth victory in six playoff games this season, and their third in an ALCS they can finish off Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET with ace Corey Kluber on the mound. This was the pure, distilled embodiment of a manager, a team and an organization with philosophies so aligned they could go 100,000 miles without a rotation – or at least a month, which they’ve done since the injuries to Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and now Bauer forced Francona to improvise and ad-lib like a player at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
“As a reliever, it’s almost the worst thing that can happen to your day, when you see the starter come out early,” Indians fireman Andrew Miller said. “Whether it’s because of injury or ineffectiveness or whatever, it means you’ve got a lot on your plate.”
By 11:32 p.m., when Miller retired the last batter in his four-out save, Francona had licked that plate clean. When Bauer walked off the mound, Miller, closer Cody Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw were in the Indians’ trainer’s room, where they often huddle in the early innings of the game. They saw Bauer’s hand. They understood the inevitability of his removal. And none of them panicked.
“We trust Tito,” Allen said. “He’s pretty dang good at running the show. So we’re going to go with what he says.”
Tito is what everyone calls Francona, who is adding to his Hall of Fame résumé with this postseason. While he’s far from a pioneer with aggressive bullpen usage, he is the first manager this century to blend so many long-held sabermetric principles – namely, use your best relievers in the toughest situations – with a deep bullpen that can help withstand, say, a zombified finger.
Francona is a modern manager for modern times, and the relationship between him and Indians president Chris Antonetti is among the strongest in the sport. Francona left Boston disappointed by the mistreatment that chased him following the chicken-and-beer meltdown of 2011. He joined the Indians in 2013 and brought a steady hand to a team that for years had foundered. It’s not just the communication between the front office and manager’s office that helps Cleveland integrate its strategy into games; it’s Francona’s ability to inspire buy-in from the players.
Part of Monday’s ease with the situation was simple: The Indians had done this before. Four times in September, including the game in which Carrasco was injured, they threw bullpen games. Carrasco’s injured hand reinforced to the Indians that winning in the playoffs would mean heavy reliance on the bullpen. Of course, they didn’t understand how much of it would fall on Miller and Allen particularly, and how that could leave the unused part of the relief corps vulnerable.
Dan Otero, Bauer’s replacement, had thrown just once since Sept. 30. He gave up a run in 1 1/3 innings. Jeff Manship came on after him. He last threw 16 days ago. He threw 1 1/3 scoreless. Then it was Zach McAllister’s turn. His layoff: 19 days. He allowed a run in an inning. And just as quickly as Toronto had tied the score at 2, Cleveland plowed back for a pair of runs on a Jason Kipnis home run and a Jose Ramirez single that scored Mike Napoli. The three came into the game a combined 0 for 19 in the ALCS. They accounted for all four runs.
At that point, after navigating a rejiggered Toronto lineup that included Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki at the top, Francona could rely on The Circumstances. After Bautista cryptically alluded to “circumstances” affecting the first two games – his don’t-wanna-get-fined way of saying the umpires were terrible – the Indians’ Twitter account sent pictures of its pitchers.
Shaw, Allen and Miller, in particular, deserve the sobriquet. Over the final 4 2/3 innings, they struck out seven Blue Jays and didn’t allow a run. Shaw, throwing only his cut fastball, lasted 1 2/3 innings before giving way to Allen, who even with Francona’s bullpen machinations hadn’t come into a game before Miller. It was Allen, though, who in July, as trade rumors percolated, approached Antonetti, the Indians’ president, and told him to pursue an elite reliever. Whatever role the Indians needed Allen to play, he would.
Miller has played every role and been nothing short of transcendent. His line in the postseason after Game 3: nine innings, four hits, two walks, 20 strikeouts, 0.00 ERA. The Circumstances’ combined totals in the ALCS: 10 2/3 innings, four hits, one walk, 20 strikeouts, 0.00 ERA.
“Tito did a masterful job running that bullpen today,” Gibbons said. “They shut us down.”
All because of a pesky wound. Bauer’s frustration gave way to resignation, even as his teammates tried to console him. “You could cut his right arm off,” Allen said, “and he’ll figure out a way to try and go out there and compete for six, seven innings with his left arm.” Even he couldn’t help but marvel at Francona’s maneuvering and made sure the Toronto fans with whom he had feuded on Twitter knew it: Bauer made an OK sign with his hand, three fingers sticking up, and then clenched it shut, to signify where the series stands.
“I admit that’s a little bit of unique way to win a playoff game,” Francona said. “But the alternative is to lose. I don’t think anybody wants to do that.”
Not the Indians. Not after all this. About 45 minutes after the game ended, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor went up and hugged Miller, then Shaw, then Allen, and delivered to each the same message: “F— yeah.” They’re close, close enough to want to burn your finger shut, close enough to think maybe this really is Cleveland’s year, Cleveland’s time, Cleveland’s turn.