CLEVELAND – If there was a challenging decision standing before Terry Francona while the Indians coasted to the best record in the American League and into the playoffs, it came this week when he directed his attention toward the mound before Game One against the Yankees in the division series on Thursday night.
Let me remind you that Francona has been among baseball's top skippers of the 21st century. He won two World Series titles with the Red Sox, helping them exorcise the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. Last season, he guided the Indians to the seventh game of the Series before they fell in extra innings in a heartbreaking loss to the Cubs.
The Tribe won 102 games this year, their most victories since 1954. They won a record 22 consecutive games and were the best team in baseball after the All-Star break. All along, Francona was a steady hand and respected voice of reason. Like other great managers and coaches in other sports, there's usually genius behind backward decisions.
Pushing his credentials aside, there was little disputing Francona took a gamble in the American League Division Series when he summoned Trevor Bauer for the first game over Cy Young Award favorite Corey Kluber. The rationale: Kluber would have an extra day of restbefore Game Two and be available for Game Five, if necessary.
"You do what you think is right," Francona said afterward. "In the morning, I don't run to see how I'm being perceived. You have to have confidence in what you're doing, and it's not always going to work."
The unspoken explanation for using Bauer was Francona believed the Indians were better, more experienced and therefore equipped to beat the Yankees no matter who took the mound Thursday. He had faith in Bauer outpitching Yanks starter Sonny Gray. It was a calculated risk, and it worked precisely the way Francona had hoped in the Indians' 4-0 win at Progressive Field.
Other managers presented with the same hand would have played their cards differently Thursday. Kluber had an 18-4 record with a 2.25 earned-run average during the regular season. He was 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA in September. He was outstanding (4-1, 1.83) in the postseason last year. He's the guy, no doubt.
This is nothing against Bauer, who also had a terrific year and beat the Yanks twice in August while allowing only two runs over 13 innings. Still, the decision was contrary to conventional wisdom. It's all right there on the first page of the baseball managers' manual: Whenever possible, lead with your ace. Francona followed his instincts.
And it worked to perfection.
Bauer was brilliant while shutting down the Yankees' sluggers. He was in complete command from the first inning, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and exited before a standing ovation with two out in the seventh. His no-hit bid was the longest for a postseason game in franchise history.
"He pitched his heart out," Francona said. "When the big moment arose, he attacked it. He embraced everything thrown at him. His poise was tremendous."
Now, Francona can execute his plan to pitch Kluber in Game Two, weather permitting, of the best-of-five series.
Jay Bruce hit a two-run homer to right in the fourth inning to give the Indians a 3-0 lead, giving Bauer breathing room after he settled into a groove. The right fielder, who hit 29 homers for the Mets and seven more in 43 games for the Tribe, also scored the first run after he doubled off the wall in the second and drove home the fourth run with a sacrifice fly in the fifth.
"Tonight, it was me. Tomorrow, it could be any of the 24 other guys on the roster," Bruce said. "I think that speaks to the depth and the quality of our lineup. It couldn't have gone any better for us."
Cleveland was the better team Thursday, as it has been all season, but its advantage in this series extends beyond the usual facts and figures. The Indians were a veteran team that was hardened by its experience, one determined to overcome the disappointment of coming so close and losing once again.
Francona knew as much long before sending Bauer to the mound. It seemed odd, considering the history of the two teams, for the Indians to be stocked with savvy veterans with thicker backbones while the Yankees were the charming upstarts trying to beat the best. Since the Indians last won the World Series in 1948, the Yankees have won 16 titles.
Bauer was summoned to quiet their bats and remove any questions about whether the Yanks could win a short series. Last year, if you remember, he was sidelined for part of the postseason after slicing his finger open while fixing his drone. He's a quirky sort, Bauer, but nobody would dispute the effectiveness of his right arm.
"(Francona) having the confidence in me to start is big," Bauer said. "But it's just baseball. Whenever I pitch, the process is the same. You come up with a plan, you talk about it and you go out and try to execute it. Tonight was a good night."
The Yankees' top eight hitters were 1 for 21 against Bauer when he was replaced after 98 pitches, giving way to ex-Yankee Andrew Miller. He kept the Yanks off balance all evening, backing up his fastball with offspeed pitches that buckled the Baby Bombers. Aaron Judge struck out three times against Bauer, four times in all. The Yanks had only two hits all night against Bauer, Miller and Cody Allen.
You never know how players will respond in certain situations. Luis Severino looked terrified after taking the mound against the Twins in the wild-card game and was gone after giving up three earned runs in a third of an inning. The Yanks' bullpen rescued him with 13 strikeouts over the final 8 2/3 innings.
Judge seemed oblivious to pressure when he homered against the Twins. The Yanks' big bats, which have supported an improved pitching staff all season, showed up after the Yanks fell behind, 3-0, in an elimination game. But they were nowhere to be found with Bauer on the mound Thursday.
The Indians resume their march Friday afternoon at home. In Cleveland, it's World Series or bust.
In effect, Francona applied more pressure on Bauer when he elected to keep his best pitcher, Kluber, on the bench Thursday. Perhaps that was the real genius in his decision. No matter how he played his cards, Francona believed he had the better hand because he had an ace in the hole.
At the very least, he's sitting on a pair.