Playoff Tito Reigns in Cleveland

The 2016 postseason has supplied us with several unforgettable moments: Edwin Encarnacion’s AL Wild Card winning blast, Conor Gillaspie’s three-run homer to win the NL Wild Card game, the masterful pitcher’s duel between the Cubs and the Giants in Game 1 of their series, and the Blue Jays decisive sweep of the top-seeded Texas Rangers in three games. Dave McCullough explains why “Playoff Tito” is responsible for the Cleveland Indians sweeping the Boston Red Sox in their best-of-five series.

The ALCS will feature those Wild-Card-winning Blue Jays facing off against the AL Central champion Cleveland Indians – who themselves dispatched the AL East winners, the Boston Red Sox, in three consecutive games. The Indians accomplished this without two of their best pitchers – Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar both shelved due to injury – as well as having ace Corey Kluber limited, as he, too, recovers from a late-season injury. Cleveland dominated Boston thanks to some competent, but unspectacular, pitching from Game 1 starter Trevor Bauer and Game 3 hurler Josh Tomlin.

However, the real reason the Indians were able to close out the series with the Red Sox so quickly, and so quietly, was the bullpen management of their proven postseason manager, Terry Francona. The man called “Tito” has two World Series titles on his resume, with the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox. Since departing Boston and going home to Cleveland – his father, Tito Francona, played for the Indians in the 1960s and young Terry grew up cheering for his dad and the Indians  – the manager has lifted Cleveland into postseason contention two times in four seasons. Prior to his arrival, it had been five years since the the Indians reached in the playoffs – when they were defeated by Francona’s Red Sox in 2007.

Francona has a long track record of pulling the right rabbit – and reliever – out of his hat, leading to playoff wins. The turning point of the 2004 ALCS – that classic series between the New York Yankees and Francona’s Red Sox – came in the midst of a 19-8 Game 3 loss. With the Yanks already leading 10-6 in the fourth inning, Francona decided to deploy potential Game 4 starter Tim Wakefield in relief. The durable veteran knuckleballer had absorbed the heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and was surely looking forward to some personal redemption, but Francona asked him instead to endure a beating for the good of the ballclub. Wakefield ended up going 3 ⅓ innings and allowing five more runs – but his yeoman’s work saved the rest of the bullpen.

When, in Game 4, the Red Sox tied the game in the ninth inning – off another Francona decision, this one to send pinch runner Dave Roberts to steal second base with two outs – the game went into extra innings and Francona had plenty of relievers remaining. His crucial decision to let Wakefield eat innings the night before allowed him to call upon closer Keith Foulke for 2 ⅔ innings, Alan Embree for 1 ⅔, and (as it turned out) injured righty Curtis Leskanic for the final 1 ⅓ innings of the legendary comeback.  

Francona’s use of his relievers in 2004 was nothing short of masterful. Leskanic would never again appear in a Major League Baseball game – he was injured that badly in Game 4 – but the manager deftly mixed-and-matched his remaining relievers to stifle the powerful Yankee offense over the final three games of the series. The hallmark of “Playoff Tito” was his use of closer Keith Foulke before the ninth inning in Games 4 and 5 – and then asking the closer for another inning – his fourth (and a third) in 49 hours – to close out Game 6. Foulke was never the same quality pitcher again after this three-game stretch, but beating the Yankees and getting to the World Series (and winning it) was “worth it” in the opinion of just about everyone involved, including Foulke himself.

It is this aggressive use of relievers that is Francona’s best attribute as a manager. In the postseason, he throws “the book” aside and does what is necessary to win the game instead of worrying about the next inning or the next game. Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter showed the perils of managing by the book in this year’s Wild Card loss to Toronto, as he kept his closer – and Cy Young candidate – Zach Britton sitting in the bullpen, waiting for a save situation, and instead called upon a starter (Ubaldo Jimenez) who had just eight career relief appearances to come into an elimination game in extra innings.

In Game 1 of the 2016 ALDS, Francona summoned his best relief pitcher – lefty Andrew Miller – with two outs in the fifth inning. Starting pitcher Trevor Bauer had gone the first 4 ⅔, allowing six hits and three runs – including two homers – before departing. Francona went to Miller for two innings of stifling relief. The lefty allowed one hit and one walk, and kept the AL’s best regular season offense off the scoreboard with 40 nasty pitches. After ⅔ of an inning from setup man Bryan Shaw, Francona then summoned closer Cody Allen for the final three outs for the victory.

After a relatively tranquil 6-0 victory in Game 2, Francona again used his bullpen-management magic to close out the series. The Game 3 starter, Tomlin, went five innings, allowing six hits and two runs. But after a Dustin Pedroia single to open the sixth inning, Francona went to the bullpen and summoned Miller – who did allow a double and a sac fly – but kept the lead intact. Miller then allowed a walk in the seventh, but worked around it and turned the game over to Shaw and Allen, again, who closed it out for the victory.

Francona is unquestionably an excellent in-game manager, deftly pulling the strings from the dugout and controlling the game via his use of relievers. His use of Miller – in the fifth inning of Game 1 and sixth inning of Game 3 – goes against the conventional wisdom on how to manage a bullpen. He consistently deploys his best reliever before his team can lose a lead; his use of Miller to bridge the gap between his less-than-ideal starters (Bauer & Tomlin) and his late-inning relievers (Shaw & Allen) was the difference in this series. Many managers would not have used Miller in this way; the lanky lefty has been a closer and a setup man in his most effective seasons as a big leaguer. But Francona is not afraid to do the unconventional thing – and to toss away “the book” in favor of using relievers based on the best interests of the team, instead of waiting around for a save situation that may never arrive.


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Featured image courtesy of David Dermer.

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