As recently as a couple months ago, numerous members of baseball media were claiming the Cleveland Indians could be potential favorites for the 2016 World Series. Today, a couple days before the ALDS opens up, you’ll have to work really hard to find anyone who predicts the Tribe to do much of anything this postseason.
The reason for this is quite simple – the Indians’ starting rotation was one of the best in baseball, and now two of the top three pitchers are hurt. Carlos Carrasco broke his hand on an unfortunately placed line drive, ending his season. Danny Salazar‘s continued elbow issues placed him on the DL, though Cleveland is hoping to have him in its bullpen for the upcoming series against the Boston Red Sox.
As a result, while the Tribe’s odds looked favorable with a 1-2-3 combo of Corey Kluber, Carrasco and Salazar, now it’s Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin taking the mound in the first three games against a hot-hitting Boston lineup. To nobody’s surprise, said rotation has people doubting Cleveland’s chances.
Making things a little more interesting is the fact that, due to a quad strain, the always-steady Kluber will be forced to wait until Game 2 for his first start. The Indians will be handing the ball to Bauer to kick off the series Thursday night, and there’s more than a little reason to be nervous about that. In fact, you can easily argue Cleveland’s mercurial Game 1 starter is facing more pressure than anyone else on the roster this postseason.
It’s already been quite a year for Bauer. In a surprise move, he was snubbed a spot in the rotation to open the season, shuttled off to the bullpen. However, an early injury to Carrasco resulted in him getting his starting gig back, an opportunity he held on to for the rest of the season.
The original hope was that the team could rely on Bauer if needed in the ALDS, making him the fourth starter should it move on to the next round. Penciling him in as the man in charge of starting the postseason off on the right foot, facing one of the best offenses in the majors, is the opposite of that.
What makes depending on Bauer so tricky, thus increasing the pressure for him, is his trademark inconsistency. Since joining the Tribe in 2013, stringing together a long series of strong starts has been difficult for him. Reading through his 2016 game log alone is like zig-zagging back and forth between heaven and hell.
His June was spectacular, only giving up more than two runs once and posting two ten-strikeout games. Bauer followed it up with a July in which he was shelled for five runs in two of his five starts. He opened August with a seven-run drubbing, then ended that month with a shutout. He got wrecked often in September, but finished the season with a good outing, allowing three runs and striking out nine this past Saturday.
Like I said, consistency isn’t Bauer’s strong suit.
Be that as it may, Cleveland is limited on options, and since Kluber couldn’t give it a go Thursday, Bauer was the next best available choice. The team is likely thankful it clinched home-field advantage, assuring he won’t be rattled by coupling his first ever playoff start with a raucous Fenway crowd. Still, it’d be understandable if everyone within the organization is a little anxious about what to expect come Game 1.
That said, there isn’t much they can do about it now except hope for the best. The Indians’ first playoff game since 2013 (or first real one since 2007, if you ask Kenny Lofton) is in Bauer’s hands. If he’s in the zone, he may very well quiet a Boston lineup which knocked in 101 more runs than any other AL club this year. If we get “bad Bauer,” the Red Sox may strike early and often, dropping the Tribe into an 0-1 series hole.
We’ll find out just which version of Cleveland’s quirky pitcher we get come Thursday. A large portion of how this series goes will hinge on what it gets from him out of the gate. As a result, while everyone in the clubhouse will feel some tension this week, it’s tough to believe anyone is feeling it more than Bauer.