The key to the Cleveland Indians‘ success, both in the regular season and the playoffs, was always going to be starting pitching. However, the dynamic between then and now has shifted completely.
Prior to the season starting, common belief was the only way Cleveland could get to the playoffs was riding the hot hands of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Now that the Indians have made the postseason, the dependence on starters has increased, but the faces have changed.
Instead of being flanked by Carrasco and Salazar, Kluber now leads a playoff rotation with Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and rookie Mike Clevinger. For obvious reasons, the new-look postseason staff had many doubting the Indians’ chances in their ALDS matchup with the Boston Red Sox. However, Kluber dominated Game 2, with his performance sandwiched between two solid starts from Bauer and Tomlin, completing the sweep.
As impressive as it was to see a depleted rotation shut down Boston’s powerful offense, the stakes get raised even higher as the ALCS kicks off tonight. The Toronto Blue Jays are hitting up a storm coming into the series, meaning the Tribe’s makeshift staff is going to have to pitch even better if the team hopes to move on to the World Series.
From Kluber’s perspective, it’s tough to ask more from him than the seven innings of three hit, shutout pitching he gave the team against Boston. Provided he can build off that performance, it’s difficult not to feel confident when he’s on the mound.
However, when it comes to Bauer and Tomlin, the serviceable games they offered last series might not be enough against Toronto.
Bauer in particular will need to sharpen up if he wants to limit the powerful Blue Jays offense. His Game 1 performance against Boston was a mixed bag, opening the night up with quite a shaky start. While he eventually settled down, he was also the beneficiary of a crucial first-inning tag out play at home which limited damage. Three runs on 4.2 innings was enough to get the job done then, but Cleveland will need more than that from him in this series.
As for Tomlin, you can’t really complain about the five innings he gave the Indians at Fenway Park in Monday night’s close-out game. Though he gave up two earned runs, neither came from the long-ball, quite a surprise coming from him. Tomlin certainly flirted with a few dangerous situations, but was able to navigate through the choppy waters.
Clevinger has yet to throw a pitch this postseason, but his inexperience will definitely make Game 4 an interesting one. That said contest will take place in front of a deafeningly loud Toronto crowd should make things even more nerve-wracking.
The point is, while the rotation did just enough to get by facing Boston, it’ll need to up its performance even more to quiet the Blue Jays’ bats.
Players like Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson are on a tear, each hitting over .350 so far this postseason. This doesn’t even factor in the always-threatening Jose Bautista, who’s always on the verge of sending poorly placed pitches into the stands.
Right now, it seems as though Toronto’s entire lineup is a threat, meaning Cleveland’s pitchers offering “just enough to survive” might not get the job done.
Bauer is always a wild card, never truly looking anything remotely consistent. Tomlin can dance around trouble, but is always one badly located meatball away from putting the Tribe behind on the scoreboard. Clevinger seemed to settle into a groove late in the regular season, but his first ever playoff start coming in Game 4 of the ALCS is enough to give even the most optimistic fans sweaty palms.
Luckily, Cleveland doesn’t need to depend solely on its rotation to win games this postseason. The offense has been strong almost across the board, and manager Terry Francona has excellently maneuvered through any hurdles the team approaches.
Still, it’s difficult to believe the Indians can get through this series with only decent performances from the rotation. If it’s just Kluber carrying the load, while Bauer, Tomlin and Clevinger give a handful of wobbly innings, things could get ugly in a hurry.
The Indians have stepped up in a big way to survive rotation injuries which should’ve derailed their chances of making a run. In order to keep said run alive, the staff will have to ramp up its efforts even further to quiet Toronto.