By HAL McCOY
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona raised brows over both eyes of most baseball aficionados when he selected Trevor Bauer to pitch Game One of the American League Division Series Thursday night.
Hey, it’s the power-laden New York Yankees you’re facing. Why not pitch the Tribe’s best, Corey Kluber?
In case you haven’t paid attention, Francona knows of what he does from the manager’s perch in the dugout. You don’t come within one pitch of winning the 2016 World Series by being a dunderhead.
And you don’t win a record 22 games in a row by being a baseball dunce. And you don’t win 102 games in 2017 by doing stupid things.
So how did this maneuver work? Like the plans for D-Day. Bauer was untouchable en route to the Indians posting a 4-0 two-hit shutout. That puts the Indians one-up in this best-of-five series and the team that wins Game One in a best-of-five format wins the series 72 per cent of the time.
So why did Francona put himself in an electric chair with somebody ready to plug it in with his controversial decision?
“We wanted to keep Kluber on his regular day,” said Francona. “That was really important to Kluber. And this was the only way we could do it.”
Kluber will start Game Two Thursday. Then, with two days off during the best-of-five series, Kluber will have his normal four days of rest and be ready, if needed, to pitch the deciding Game Five.
And if the Tribe wins in three or four? Then Kluber is ready to pitch Game One of the American League Championship Series.
Yeah, Francona is crazy like a genius fox.
For 5 2/3 innings, the Yankees didn’t have a hit off Bauer. Their first hit came with one out in the sixth, a single by Aaron Hicks. The second didn’t come until two outs in the seventh, a single by Starlin Castro.
By then, the Tribe owned a four-run lead and Francona went to the whip, bringing in bullpen icon Andrew Miller. When it’s Miller Time in Cleveland, it is time for the other team to pack their bats and order the pizza.
Miller struck out three in his one inning of work, but wasn’t stiletto sharp. When he walked two in the eighth inning, Francona brought in closer Cody Allen with two outs to face Aaron Judge. And for the fourth straight time, ol’ 99 struck out as Allen restored order in the court.
Allen, savior of 30 games in 34 chances, closed it out in the ninth. The Yankees, shut out only three times this year, were held to three hits, the last one a two-out single in the ninth by Starlin Castro.
Bauer, of course, wasn’t a slouch coming in. He was 10-and-1 in his last 14 starts after beginning the season 7-and-7. On Thursday, he pitched 6 2/3 innings and gave up no runs, two hits, walked one and struck out eight. He whiffed Aaron Judge, the American League home run king, three straight times.
And the offense?
Well, every Cincinnati Reds fan in the Tri-State area, plus West Virginia, knows that when Jay Bruce cranks it up he lift his entire team and perches it on his broad shoulders.
It did just that in Game One — double, two-run home run, sacrifice fly. He scored the first run and drove in the next three against Yankees starter Sonny Gray.
Bruce, traded by the Reds two years ago to the New York Mets, was traded in August by the Mets to the Indians and he immediately made a great team a little bit better. And with injuries to outfielders Bradley Zimmer and Michael Brantley, Bruce needed to step it up. He high-stepped it.
He started the second inning with an opposite field double high off the Progressive Field left field wall. The Tribe then loaded the bases but scored only one run, Bruce scoring while Roberto Perez hit into a double play.
It stayed 1-0 until the fourth when Edwin Encarnacion, another former Reds player, walked and Bruce drilled one into the right field seats. Bruce hit 36 home runs for the Mets and Indians this season.
Jose Ramirez walked to open the fifth, took second on a wild pitch and took third on another wild pitch, where he stood when Bruce flied to center field, a sacrifice fly to make it 4-0.
And now, because of Francona’s brilliance and forethought, he gets to send his ace, Corey Kluber, 18-and-4 with a 2.25 earned run average and the favorite to win the American League Cy Young award, to the mound for game two against New York’s CC Sabathia.