CHICAGO – In one month, Terry Francona has reminded the baseball world that modern managers can be brains more than button pushers. This isn’t simply a matter of Francona following the axiom of using his best players at the biggest times, which, yes, he does quite well, as his Cleveland Indians are one victory from their first World Series title in 68 years. No, this is more than that, bigger than that: a grand, honking argument for the power of relationships and the potency of trust.
These are mostly intangible, which in a sport like baseball, and an organization with an analytical bent like the Indians, seems counterintuitive. October surprises aren’t just for politics. Cleveland’s 7-2 throttling of the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 on Saturday night stunned Wrigley Field for the second consecutive evening, gave the Indians a 3-1 series advantage – the kind that has been reversed just five times in World Series history – and, as much as anything, reminded of the different plane on which Francona is managing.
Francona doesn’t just think outside the box. He threw the damn thing in the recycling bin at the start of the month. Convention left Cleveland with the Republicans. And it’s not some magic wand. Why Francona’s maneuvering works makes him the paragon he is and has allowed him to outfox his Cubs counterpart, Joe Maddon, thus far.
Let’s first understand: Managing is an exceedingly difficult job, and managing in October, with every out vital, every situation fattened with meaning, is exponentially harder. Impressive as Francona’s tactical brilliance all month is, it works because of everything he does that lays the foundation for it. This isn’t managing baseball. This is managing, period. This is surveying assets both physical and analytical, respecting and implementing the suggestions of superiors, earning the belief of subordinates – creating a culture that allows him to bench Mike Napoli, one of the team’s spiritual leaders, for Game 4 without creating a stir, or insert Andrew Miller, the uber-reliever, at any juncture of the game with the support of all. This is faith in Yan Gomes to block a Cody Allen breaking ball in a one-run game with a runner on third in the ninth in Game 3, then knowing Gomes is going to tap his glove on the ground to dupe Javier Baez before receiving a high fastball for strike three, game over. This is belief and conviction and reliance.
“The other thing that helps me a ton is the cooperation we get with our players is phenomenal because we do some things – we’ve done a few things that are a little out of the box this series, last series, and they handle it,” Francona said. “I’m not sure you can always do that with every player and have it work.”
There is an urgency with the Indians and has been from their first game in the division series to Saturday night. Losing their best hitter in Michael Brantley and two of their best starters in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar helped forge that. And this is not to say the 103-win Cubs don’t have that edge, or that an edge even bridges the talent gap. Just that here stand the Indians, with a potential celebration awaiting them in Chicago on Sunday and a weeklong party in Cleveland after that, and there stood Kyle Schwarber, in the on-deck circle of Game 4, as it ended.
The Cubs have scored seven runs in four World Series games. Schwarber drove in two of them. He is indisputably one of their four best hitters – probably one of their top three, behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. And while it wasn’t an ideal time to use him leading off in the fifth inning, with Cleveland ahead 3-1 and the top of the lineup due up, it wasn’t altogether crazy, either, not with Miller and Allen looming.
“I didn’t want to waste that right there,” Maddon said. “You don’t know.”
This is true. You don’t know. Maybe Chris Coghlan, the pinch hitter chosen by Maddon, gets a hit, and Dexter Fowler follows with one, and Bryant launches a home run, and the Cubs lead 4-3. Second-guessing is easy. The thing is, Maddon said he was “looking for a more profitable moment to expend him” and added: “When you have a deficit like that, you really want to utilize him when there’s an opportunity to drive in more than himself.”
In Game 3, when Schwarber came into a 1-0 game with one out in the eighth inning, the Cubs’ chances of winning were about 23 percent, according to FanGraphs. Before Coghlan’s at-bat in Game 4: 27.3 percent. Now, these situations aren’t entirely comparable. Schwarber is a power hitter who could’ve tied Game 3 with one swing, and starting an inning with him doesn’t allow him to drive in runs. But that’s putting Schwarber in a box, trying to map out an ideal situation for him. Then a 3-1 game turns into a 7-1 game, ideal doesn’t exist and the box is a piece of corrugated cardboard set aflame.
This wasn’t like Buck Showalter failing to use his closer, Zach Britton, in the Orioles’ extra-inning wild-card loss, but it was fitting that Britton came to Wrigley to accept an award for the best reliever in the American League on the same night a vital player never saw the field. Best-case scenario for the Cubs, three games are left in the season. Like Francona, Maddon is tremendous in the clubhouse, the keeper of a culture that starts with president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer and filters down into a group that gets along.
Bending that to an advantage in October, though, is something different altogether. Those relationships are great; leveraging those relationships to affect strategy is some next-level stuff, and it takes someone with the gravitas, emotional knowledge and tactical heft of Francona to pull it off.
Look at his plan for Miller. Even with a 7-1 lead, he threw 22 pitches. Why? Because Francona isn’t in the business of looking toward tomorrow or assuming any lead is safe. In 2008, his Boston Red Sox erased a 7-0 deficit in the seventh inning to win an ALCS game. Tito commandment: Thou shalt not trifle with a lead in the World Series. Anyway, it’s not like Miller won’t be available for Games 5, 6 and 7.
“He’ll be able to be used tomorrow,” Francona said, “and we might flip-flop he and Cody tomorrow. Let Cody do some of what maybe Andrew’s been doing. We’ll see how the game’s going. …
“We’ll do whatever’s in our best interest to try to win the game, just like all the time.”
Maddon is trying to win just the same, yes, trying to put his players in the best positions like Francona. The two aren’t that different. It comes down to players playing, players executing, players winning. If Miller isn’t having one of the best postseasons ever for a relief pitcher – and if Corey Kluber isn’t coming back on three days’ rest for Game 4 and throwing six brilliant innings – Francona isn’t a genius. He’s probably the guy who helped the Cubs break their 108-year streak and the Indians’ extend theirs to a totally-not-nice 69.
They’re winning, though, and Francona is the star because the Indians don’t have a Bryant or Rizzo, even if Francisco Lindor is every bit the player they are. Francona is their Gandhi, bald and bespectacled, spouting wisdom that speaks to 20-something millionaires. Check your ego. Your job is what you’re told to do. And that’s because it’s October, and October exists for next April, when a stadium full of people will cry as gold rings crusted over with diamonds slide onto the fingers in this clubhouse.
— Carlos Santana MLB⚾️ (@TheRealSlamtana) October 30, 2016
Carlos Santana is a 30-year-old designated hitter. He started his career as an infielder and wasn’t any good. He came up with the Indians as a catcher and wasn’t much there, either. He moved to first base and was meh, too. He spent two-thirds of this season DHing. And yet when they needed his bat in the lineup for Game 3, Santana went to left field, no questions asked, and acquitted himself fine. And when Napoli needed a break, he went to first base for Game 4, good by him.
Francona’s use of Santana – his delightful balance of crucial need with practical application – is the story of this run, of these Indians, who have three cracks at one win. They want to get it taken care of in one. In October, there is no time like now.