On the surface, it makes no sense to start Corey Kluber on short rest for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The issues are clear:
— Kluber has never started on three-days rest and so there is no history for him or Cleveland to fall back on. Nobody, including Kluber, knows how it will play, but it’s likely that there will be some performance fall-off because of the missing day.
— Cleveland is already up 3-0, meaning they could easily sacrifice Game 4 in order to get a fully rested Kluber in Game 5. Ask yourself: How much better a chance does Cleveland have of winning a game with a rested Kluber? Ten percent better chance? Twenty? More? When you only need one more win, you want to put your ace in the best position to get that win.
— Game 4 is in Toronto. You can’t really learn anything too valuable from Kluber’s two career starts in Toronto — it’s not enough of a sample size — but somewhere in the back of your mind you do know that he got shellacked in Toronto early this season, failing to get out of the fourth. This leads to the more salient point: The Blue Jays crush the ball in Toronto. They hit 24 points higher and slugged 36 points higher in Toronto in 2016. The slugging gap was even wider in 2015. Obviously, yes, even if you held Kluber for full rest, he would pitch Game 5 in Toronto. But this only strengthens the point: If you have to put Kluber in Toronto to clinch a World Series bid, you would obviously want a locked-and-loaded Kluber.
— If Kluber loses Game 4 — and you have put him in a more likely position to lose — Terry Francona has a staggeringly slim set of options going forward. He will have to start a rookie with 11 innings in the majors, Ryan Merritt, in Game 5. Lose there, and he goes with the gutsy but not exactly intimidating Josh Tomlin in Game 6. And then it’s back to Kluber, but once again on short rest, for Game 7. None of this looks especially appealing from a Cleveland perspective.
Blue Jays fans know, even down 3-0, this series is still there to be won if they can take Kluber out in Game 4.
So, yes, all the reasons for NOT pitching Kluber tonight are easy to see.
But all of those reasons ignore one simple fact: It’s a flippin’ miracle that Cleveland has gotten this far in the first place. This is just the scant remains of what was one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. Carlos Carrasco, for much of the season, was a leading Cy Young candidate. He last pitched on September 17. Danny Salazar was striking out 10.6 batters per nine innings with his high 90s fastball and wipeout change-up. He too was a viable Cy Young candidate in July. He last pitched on September 9.
Trevor Bauer was alternately terrific and dreadful all year, but he was the wildcard, the flaky and bold who might just show up and strike out 13 like he did against Toronto back in August. He blew up his pinkie finger playing around with a drone. He called it a non-issue in a wide-ranging interview on Sunday where he also called “Phantom Menace” his favorite Star Wars movie because Darth Maul is “one of the coolest villains.”*
*Tom Tango posits that this is both understandable and even admirable because Bauer was 8 years old when “Phantom Menace” came out and, as I have written many times, baseball and other stuff is always best when you are 8 years old. I see and even enjoy the logic of that but don’t accept it — “Phantom Menace” was an abomination upon the earth and while, yes, at the time I thought the 1975 Cleveland Indians were the best team ever, growing up has disabused me of that absurd notion.
But of course the drone injury was a major factor, and Bauer couldn’t even make it through the first inning in Game 3. He’s certainly done as a starting pitcher for this series.
There you go: Three-fifths of the rotation, gone. This is why, if this series goes five games, Francona will have no choice but to make some sort of Ryan Merritt/Mike Clevinger mix-tape and probably burn up the bullpen again.
So here’s Sophie’s Choice for Francona:
Do you do the Merritt/Clevinger thing in Game 4 so that you can have a rested Kluber in Game 5?
Do you throw Kluber out there in Game 4, gambling that he will be a better version of himself, and try to end the series now, understanding the consequences if you don’t
And when you put it that way, frankly, I don’t think it is a choice.
I think, as long as Kluber wants to pitch on short rest (and he does), you HAVE to do exactly what Francona is doing and pitch him in Game 4, even with all the negatives that come with it.
First, for the Merritt/Clevinger thing to work, it’s likely that Cleveland’s sensational bullpen will need to be rested. And it isn’t. The bullpen was a used-up force in Game 3, covering eight-plus innings. Cleveland’s six best relievers all pitched, and they were stretched out. Brian Shaw, who was mostly a one-inning pitcher this year, went one and two-thirds. Cody Allen, Cleveland’s closer, came in the seventh inning for the first time all year and threw 27 high-pressure pitches. Then Lord Voldemort came in to close things out, doing his usual strikeout thing.
You don’t want to go into a game the very next day more-or-less knowing that you will need all those guys again, and might need them for multiple innings. Yes, of course, it could work out that way even with Kluber on the mound, but you have to take a shot. Francona knows that if he is not careful, he could mess up his bullpen for the rest of the series.
Second, pitching Kluber fits the philosophy that Francona has preached all postseason: Win today, worry about tomorrow then. For such a beat-up Cleveland team (and let’s not forget they are also without Michael Brantley, their best hitter), that theme has been energizing. They feed off Miller, who will come in at any time in any situation to save the day. They feed off Francisco Lindor, who helps the team in countless ways. They feed off Francona.
Kluber wants to sacrifice for this team too. It’s part of the spirit Francona has helped build. You’ve gone this far with it, you have to keep going.
Third, and perhaps most important: Francona literally does not have a Game 7 starter if he doesn’t do this. Yes, of course, this cuts against the “worry about tomorrow then” concept, but I mean, you need SOMEBODY to start Game 7. Who? If you start Merritt in Game 4, are you going to bring an inexperienced rookie back on three days rest? No. Clevinger? You’re really going to start a 25-year-old kid with a 5.93 ERA in 10 career starts in Game 7 at home for a chance to go to the World Series?
No, this is it. Cleveland has come absurdly far when you consider the journey. They’ve bluffed their way to the brink of the World Series with a pair of twos and one heck of a poker face. They’re still holding a pair of twos, but it’s too late to back out now. It’s the ultimate cliché but also the first rule of poker: You play the cards you are dealt.