The Shutout Team
Let’s go over the whole thing briefly so that we can appreciate the miracle that’s going on here.
On October 6, Cleveland shut out Boston 6-0 to take a commanding lead in that best-of-five division series. The Red Sox had led Major League Baseball in runs scored by a fairly large margin -- 33 more runs than second-place Colorado -- and since the All-Star break had averaged 5.2 runs per game.
Cleveland’s Corey Kluber was the dominating force in that one -- he is pretty wildly underrated. When you look at the advanced numbers, it seems pretty clear that Kluber has been the second-best starting pitcher in baseball the last three years behind only Kershaw. How many people would name him? His fluctuating win total makes his brilliance easy to miss. Kluber held the Red Sox to three hits, Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw each pitched 1-2-3 innings, and that was that. Shutout No. 1.
Eight days later, Cleveland shut out Toronto 2-0 to open the American League Championship Series. The Blue Jays led baseball in runs scored in 2015 with even more runs than the Red Sox scored this year and they basically returned the same lineup. It is true, though, that Toronto’s offense fell off this year. Too many strikeouts and Jose Bautista's decline were the difference.
Kluber was the starter again, and he went 6 ⅓ innings. Superweapon Andrew Miller came in and got five outs, all by strikeout. Cody Allen finished it off with a clean ninth inning. The Blue Jays got five runners into scoring position all game and went 0-for-5 in those situations. And that was shutout No. 2.
On October 19, in Toronto, Cleveland had a chance to reach its first World Series in 19 years but the Tribe staff was so beat up that manager Terry Francona had to start a kid named Ryan Merritt, who had made one Major League start in his entire life. Merritt did make 29 starts in Class AAA Columbus over two seasons, though, and there he had posted an unconvincing 3.79 ERA and fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings. He was rated, before the season began, as Cleveland’s 22nd best prospect.
Merritt threw 4 ⅔ innings of almost flawless baseball, facing just one batter over the minimum as he began the fifth inning. In came Bryan Shaw for a sketchy but scoreless inning. In came Andrew Miller, fatigued perhaps from all the work. He threw a double play ground ball on his first pitch. He gave up a long fly ball and a single, only struck out one, but still went 2 ⅔ scoreless innings. Then Cody Allen closed it out again, one inning, two strikeouts, ballgame. That was shutout No. 3.
Tuesday was probably the most emotional night in Cleveland sports history. The Cavaliers were raising their championship banner while, right next door, the Tribe was playing in World Series Game 1. Feelings crackled like lightning.
In that way, it wasn’t too surprising that Cleveland threw another shutout. Yes, it’s true, the Chicago Cubs have a fantastic offense, third-most runs in baseball this year, a top-to-bottom dynamo lineup that for the first time since April featured the young slugger Kyle Schwarber. But that Cubs lineup DOES occasionally go into slumps (they were shut out in back-to-back games by the Dodgers in the NLCS) and Cleveland had Kluber on the mound.
And so this shutout was pretty straightforward. Kluber dominated, striking out nine in six scoreless innings. Andrew Miller was shakier than expected, but he still managed to grind through two scoreless innings -- the key-at bat being a bases-loaded strikeout of David Ross, who was somewhat inexplicably left in the game to hit.
And finally, Cody Allen, finished it off in the ninth. Funny, this postseason has been so much about the evolving role of relief pitchers that it has almost gone without notice that Allen, while serving more or less the role of a traditional closer, has been lights out. He has finished off the ninth in seven of Cleveland’s nine postseason wins and has not allowed a single run. It’s Mariano Rivera type stuff he’s been doing while everyone has been watching Miller and Kenley Jansen and Zach Britton and thinking about the future of relief pitching.
Anyway, that was shutout No. 4.
Then came Friday night in Chicago and this was, by far, the most unexpected and preposterous shutout of them all. This was the first World Series game on the North Side of Chicago since 1945. You would expect the first World Series game at Wrigley to inspire hyperbole, but it’s hard to find a statement too exaggerated for the moment. There has never in the history of baseball been a scene quite like it. The Cubs were also coming off a dominant 5-1 victory in Game 2, one that easily could have been 10-1 or 11-1. The Cubs outscored opponents 389-247 at Wrigley Field this year. They are a .700 baseball team at home.
And Cleveland was sending Josh Tomlin to the mound.
Everything about this game -- everything -- pointed to a blowout Cubs victory.
Still: There is a lot to like about Josh Tomlin. Bob Uecker loves to say that his career was truly great because, unlike so many, he had a big league career without any actual baseball talent. He exaggerates (or deggaterates -- if that's a word) his own skill for effect, but there's something to that. Tomlin is a tough kid from Texas who has continuously found various ways to be a Major League Baseball pitcher despite various injury issues and a decidedly slim margin for error.
See, he does not really have even one plus Major League pitch. He relies on a whole slew of so-so pitches -- a high-80s fastball, a reasonably active cutter, an occasional slider or change-up that sometimes get the job done and other times hang suspended over the plate and ask hitters to tee off. He has continued to find his way into Cleveland's rotation because he has excellent control and he will never back down, ever. Hitters have slugged .469 against him over his entire career, which is within a few points of the career slugging percentage of Roberto Clemente. But Tomlin has twice led the league in fewest walks allowed. He's coming after you, whether that scares you or not.
In other words, he seemed more or less the WORST possible choice to face a hyped Chicago Cubs team on THEIR most emotional night in team history. Tomlin gave up 36 homers this year, second-most in the American League. The wind was blowing out at Wrigley Field.
Tomlin somehow got the Cubs 1-2-3 in the first inning on a routine fly ball and two groundouts.
And, some way, he kept getting the Chicago hitters to play his game, to swing at his pitches, to show themselves out. Tomlin managed just one strikeout in 4 ⅔ innings but he induced eight groundouts, a couple of pop-ups, the young Cubs hitters seemed to be jumping out of their shoes for their chance to get at this guy, but then they couldn’t get him. They were the boxing slugger looking for the one-punch knockout and continuously coming away with glancing blows.
Francona went to go get Tomlin in the fifth inning even though he was still very much in command -- the reason was two-fold. One, this is how Francona has managed his short-handed team all postseason; he plays for the win and plays to have his best pitchers -- mainly Miller and Allen -- in the game for as many innings as possible.
Two: If this series goes six (as it now looks like it will) that will mean bringing Tomlin back on short rest for the first time in his up-and-down career. Francona only wanted him pitching a half-game, if possible. Tomlin was at 58 pitches. That was enough.
Miller came in, and he was back to his old dominant ways -- four batters faced, three strikeouts. They were not just three regular strikeouts. He struck out the top of the Cubs lineup (leadoff man Dexter Fowler, probable MVP Kris Bryant, and team’s heart-and-soul Anthony Rizzo), all swinging. Helplessly.
Francona probably wanted another inning from Miller, but this is National League ball, and Miller’s spot came to the plate with runners on first and third with two outs. With the game scoreless, Francona had to make his move there. He pinch-hit Coco Crisp, who lined a single to score the game’s first run.
“If trade off is to be down 1-0 with no Miller available for nine outs,” tweeted the fine Chicago writer Sahadev Sharma, “Cubs probably take that.”
Well, I don't think that's right -- there’s no way the Cubs would trade being down a run in the seventh inning of a World Series game just to avoid Miller -- but the point was not without merit. Francona had to find nine more outs, and Allen probably couldn’t get more than four or five of them.
That meant Francona had to go to Bryan Shaw, who appeared in more games than any pitcher in the league. Shaw is basically the archetype of the solid relief pitcher. He throws hard and he throws two pitches -- a fastball that cuts and a slider that, uh, cuts. The slider is about 10 mph slower than the cutter. That’s what makes them different.
Bryan Shaw, in other words, is the sort of pitcher the Chicago Cubs hope to get when they trick or treating.
But on this night -- like it has been for the entire playoffs -- the Cleveland pitcher found a way. In the seventh, Shaw gave up a cheapie triple to Jorge Soler on a fly ball down the right field line that Cleveland’s Lonnie Chisenhall missed because he thought he was about to hit the wall. But Shaw got Javier Baez to ground out to end the threat.
The eighth inning provided one of the weirder moments of these playoffs. Shaw struck out Addison Russell to start, and then Cubs manager Joe Maddon sent up Kyle Schwarber to pinch-hit. Schwarber has been the dramatic story of this World Series because he basically missed the whole year with a nasty knee injury and was just doing some rehab work at the Arizona Fall League when the Cubs decided to bring him up. He had not faced Major League pitching for 200-plus days, but he cranked a double off Kluber -- hardest hit ball of the night for the Cubs -- and he worked a spectacular walk against Miller and in Game 2 he laced two singles and drew a walk. It was pretty mind-blowing.
So up came Schwarber, and the Internet basically blew up because Francona decided to let Shaw pitch to him. The very idea that Francona would not bring in his best pitcher left, Cody Allen. to face the red-hot Schwarber seemed to baffle every kind of baseball fan, from the traditionalist to the most sabermetrically driven.
And it’s almost like EVERYONE forgot that Kyle Schwarber is just 23 years old, only has 278 career plate appearances and is, so far, a lifetime .242 hitter. Yes, he seems to have every skill necessary to become a superstar, but he ain’t Babe Ruth yet. Shaw got him to hit an infield pop-up.
Allen came in for the final four outs, and they were not easy -- there were runners on second and third when he faced Baez with two outs in the ninth. With two strikes, Allen threw a 94-mph fastball about a foot above the strike zone. Baez is one of the Cubs’ many wonderful young players, and he seems capable of almost anything. But he can’t lay off of those. He swung and missed.
And that was shutout No. 5.
That’s a record, of course, five shutouts in one postseason, and there are still at least two more World Series games left, probably more. There’s no reasonable explanation for it except that Francona is managing his butt off and the Cleveland pitchers are feeding off each other and making the right pitches in all the right moments.
The Cubs still have to be favored to win this series -- every starter Cleveland will send to the mound for the rest of this series will be on short rest. Logic demands that at some point this Cleveland magic -- and their tired arms -- will die out. But logic has been left waiting. If there was a game for the magic to die it, surely it was Game 3, on that crazy Chicago night, with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field. Cleveland won 1-0. This wild story goes on.