By Steve Silverman
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The Cleveland Indians found themselves in an underdog role prior to playing the Boston Red Sox in their American League Division Series. They are also underdogs as they prepare to play the Toronto Blues Jays in the ALCS.
When top baseball minds compared the Tribe to the Sox and similar assessments are made versus the Jays, there’s only one spot where the Indians have the clear advantage: relief pitching.
Cleveland has strength and depth with their relievers, but the big edge comes from the 6-foot-7 presence of Andrew Miller. The 31-year-old left-hander is the most devastating bullpen weapon in all of baseball.
Those who want to argue that point will look to Aroldis Chapman of the Chicago Cubs. When Theo Epstein was looking at his powerhouse of a team as the season unfolded, he decided that his team was somewhat vulnerable when it came to closing out games.
Since the Cubs had such a huge lead in the NL Central, there was no need to be concerned about that deficiency during the regular season. But winning in the postseason is another story, and that’s why he decided to upgrade his team by bringing in a superior closer.
Miller and Chapman were New York Yankees at the start of the season, and if the Bombers had played well in the first half and had been in a real fight for a playoff spot or the AL East crown, the chances would have been fairly good that Brian Cashman would have held on to both of his studs.
The Yankees had a pretty decent bullpen with Dellin Betances, Miller and Chapman. They were clearly playing a six-inning brand of baseball, and by turning a lead over to that trio, the Yankees seemed to be in wonderful shape.
Those plans went asunder, and now Miller is helping the Tribe pursue its first World Series appearance since 1997. Miller is even more valuable for Cleveland than he was with the Yankees.
Instead of using him for one inning in a designated role, Cleveland manager Terry Francona has been using his best pitcher in the highest stress situations.
Baseball convention indicates that the ninth inning is the most stressful, but Francona has concluded that the intense stress can come in the fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth as well as the ninth. Additionally, Francona will use Miller for two-plus innings, instead of the usual final inning that the closer gets.
Miller was excellent with the Yankees, but he has been otherworldly with the Indians. He is 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA, and he has struck out 46 batters in 29 innings. His most remarkable stat is his 0.552 WHIP.
Miller’s talent is somewhat reminiscent of Randy Johnson, and while the Big Unit was a dominating starter, batters get the same feeling of impending failure against the Cleveland lefty that they did against the Hall of Famer.
Miller has a wonderful fastball, but it is his wipeout slider and overall command that separate him from everyone else.
There is no secret to Chapman’s success, as he has the most velocity the game has ever seen. He regularly throws the ball 101 to 103 mph, and has been know to go as high as 105.
Chapman has the gun on his side, but there’s even more to his pitching than that. He will find the corners, and he has a good slider. He also demonstrated quite a bit of resiliency this week.
With the Cubs in a position to close out the Giants in three straight games in the NLDS, Chapman was hit hard in the eighth inning of Game 3, with Mets killer Conor Gillaspie delivering the telling blow.
Joe Maddon removed the pitcher from the game, and San Francisco went on to win in extra innings. However, when the Cubs rallied in the ninth inning the following night, Chapman got the ball in bottom of the inning and blew away the Giants with three straight strikeouts.
That touched off a major celebration on the Giants’ home field, one that could be repeated at Dodger Stadium in the NLCS next week.
The underdog Indians and the favored Cubs are on a collision course to meet in the World Series.
A pair of ex-Yankee relievers may turn out to be the decisive figures in their championship aspirations.
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