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Francona’s gamble pays off for Indians

10/06/2017, 12:27am EDT
By By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Big-swinging Yankees blanked by Bauer, relievers in Game 1


Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Trevor Bauer delivers in the first inning against the New York Yankees in Game 1 on Thursday. Bauer did not allow a hit until the sixth inning int he 4-0 win. ASSOCIATED PRESS

CLEVELAND — Sometimes, you really can outsmart the stadium.

If Terry Francona had not yet earned the benefit of every armchair doubt in his likely Hall of Fame career, the Indians manager turned the home crowd into full-throated believers in Cleveland’s resounding opening postseason act Thursday.

Like Homer Simpson, Francona could press the big red CORE DESTRUCT: DO NOT PUSH button at a nuclear power plant. Only, in his case, the place would win a national safety award. In Cleveland, Francona’s legend is becoming downright Homeric.

Midas was envious of his touch in the Indians’ 4-0 victory over the Yankees at Progressive Field.

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Starting Trevor Bauer over the best pitcher in baseball in Game 1 of the American League Division Series? All Bauer did was toss the longest no-hit bid in Indians playoff history, holding the big-swinging Bombers hitless through 5⅓ innings and scoreless over 6⅔ innings.

Starting an average-fielding career second baseman in centerfield? All Jason Kipnis did was deliver the defensive highlight of the night.

“I think he’ll be just fine,” Francona cooly said of Kipnis before the game.

And, like he is more often than not, the biggest difference-making manager in baseball was right.

The Indians put a vise grip on this best-of-five series with their usual mix of big swings, stonewalling swing-and-miss pitching, expert defense, and just plain shrewd oversight.

Every decade, as reliably as the census, the Indians beat the Yankees in a first-round series that turns on a single indelible moment.

In 1997, it was Sandy Alomar, Jr.’s, two-out, game-tying home run off Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning of Game 4. In 2007, it was The Midge Game. In 2017, it could be The Gamble.

The easiest thing in the world would have been to start ace Corey Kluber on Thursday. Every other manager out there would have done just that. Same here. 

No chance to be second-guessed that way.

But, as it turns out, Francona — a two-time champion in Boston who made all the right moves in the Indians’ run to the World Series last year — knows what he is doing.

Francona had his well-documented reasons for starting Bauer, then admirably stood by his convictions. And while a good outcome does not make a good decision, how about that outcome? Wow. If this is the production the Indians can expect from Bauer in the No. 3 spot, consider Cleveland — the most complete team in baseball — the prohibitive World Series favorite.

The hard-throwing right-hander with a devastating curveball was brilliant from the start, striking out Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez in the first inning and gaining strength from there.

When fans marked down the first Yankees’ hit on their scorecards with one out in the sixth inning — an Aaron Hicks double off the 19-foot left-field wall — a standing ovation followed. When Bauer punched out Aaron Judge to end the inning two batters later, the building — and the city — rattled.

It was that kind of night, and the crest of a remarkable turnabout by Bauer. 

A former clubhouse outcast best known for his eccentric warmup routine — to say nothing of his home-built drones — the 26-year-old electrified and exasperated in his first five big league seasons.

Bauer lugged a league-worst 6.06 ERA through April and was no better in May, his place in the rotation in growing peril with each passing start.

“The first half was miserable,” Bauer said. “I was depressed for the first month, month and a half of the season. I didn’t enjoy coming to the field.”

What happened next, though, confirmed the oldest rule in the book. Never give up on a gifted young pitcher.

Over time, many teams learned this the hard way. The Expos swapped Randy Johnson to the Mariners for pitcher Mark Langston in 1989, with precocious Montreal general manager Dave Dombrowski judging the fire-throwing 25-year-old Big Unit too wild to amount to anything in the majors. Four years later, the Dodgers traded away the reputedly too-small Pedro Martinez.

Others displayed more patience and reaped the reward.

An earlier incarnation of the Dodgers, for instance, stuck with some wild-armed kid who went 36-40 in his first six major league seasons. All Sandy Koufax did next was deliver the most sublime five-year burst the sport has ever seen.

Now, that’s an extreme example, but it is far from the only one.

Bauer could yet be the latest. Newly confident and more liberally deploying — and acutely commanding — his curveball, he has enjoyed the stretch of his pitching life since the All-Star break, emerging as one of the best pitchers in the game.

He proved it again Thursday, rewarding the Indians’ faith when it mattered most.

Francona knew it all the way.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona answers questions after the Indians defeated the New York Yankees 4-0 on Thursday. ASSOCIATED PRESS

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