MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Indians 'pen different script for best-of-seven

Francona needs to balance use of relievers with short-handed rotation

Indians 'pen different script for best-of-seven

CLEVELAND -- Back in the days of development, before Mickey Callaway had graduated from Class A pitching coach to the same role with the Indians, there were intractable rules in place. Many relievers weren't allowed to be used on successive days. Starters had to be kept on strict timetables and pitch counts. It was a setup that simultaneously tied a coach's hands and fired up his imagination, because it required creativity to simply survive.

"Every day that you came to the field," Callaway said, "you had a different group available. And you had to win with that group that day."

Sound familiar?

Callaway was once the mechanic of the luxury automobile that the Indians' rotation had grown to become, but the group taken into this American League Championship Series against the Blue Jays is a jalopy by comparison. It's Kluber and Bauer and pray for showers (to somehow penetrate the roof at Rogers Centre, which seems unlikely). Game 1 is set for Friday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS in the U.S., Sportsnet and RDS in Canada.

Game Date Matchup TV/Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 14 CLE 2, TOR 0 video
Gm 2 Oct. 15 CLE 2, TOR 1 video
Gm 3 Oct. 17 CLE 4, TOR 2 video
Gm 4 Oct. 18 TOR 5, CLE 1 video
Gm 5 Oct. 19 CLE 3, TOR 0 video

The Indians skated right through the Division Series with the Red Sox in part because of the favorable schedule provided by the best-of-five series. Leverage lefty Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen made two appearances apiece, and they threw a whopping total of 155 pitches.

Don't count on that in the best-of-seven ALCS.

The real challenge presented by the injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, who were struck from the starting five after the AL Central was essentially in hand, is just beginning.

"We've got our hands full," Callaway said. "We used four relievers the whole [Division Series], our top guys. That's not going to happen in a seven-game series. We've going to have to have some guys step up and step up in a big way."

This is how the Indians are penciling in their rotation this round ...

Game 1: Corey Kluber, ace of the staff and orchestrator of seven-plus magnificent innings against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALDS.

Game 2 (Saturday at 4 p.m.): Josh Tomlin, who feasted on first-pitch strikes in a wily effort against Boston but will have to be even wilier against a Toronto club more aggressive on first pitches.

Game 3 (Monday at 8 p.m.): Trevor Bauer, effective if not exactly efficient in Game 1, leading to an early hook and the move to Miller.

Miller's excellent appearance

Game 4 (Tuesday at 4 p.m.): Mike Clevinger & The Middle Men, an unheralded cover band available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and October desperation.

What's ruled out -- for now, at least -- is the option of bringing Kluber back on three days' rest for Game 4 and, if it goes the distance, Game 7. Under ordinary circumstances, such an unordinary schedule would be more palatable, but the Indians do have to be cognizant of the mild quadriceps strain that held Kluber out of his final regular-season start and the leg sleeve he wore that affected his ability to push off (and, ergo, his velocity) in an otherwise unassailable effort against the Red Sox.

But look, no matter what manager Terry Francona has said publicly for now, Kluber on short rest is still not 100 percent out of the question, especially if the Indians are in a hole.

Francona on starting rotation

"I think you could easily see him pitching three different games," Callaway said. "He has the ability to do that physically. He rebounds, recovers really good. The day after he pitches, it's like he didn't even pitch. He's going to be prepared to do that if we need him to."

The Indians feel much the same about the rubber-armed Bauer, who was scheduled to go on short rest in the ALDS before rain intervened.

Really, it's a situation with no ideal options, because the history of starters on short rest is sketchy and the notion of a "bullpen day" (it's been three weeks since Clevinger went more than two innings) in the LCS, of all places, is absurd, on its face.

But hey, baseball is evolving, and bullpens have never been such a focal point. In seven postseason games so far, AL teams have almost split the workloads between starters (68 innings) and relievers (61). This is going to be a big opportunity for Clevinger, for Cody Anderson and for others to strut their stuff on the national stage.

"We understand we're short-handed," Tomlin said. "But it's not like Clevinger hasn't been built up this year at all. He's got a great arm and a good mindset for games like these. I think he's ready for the challenge, and I don't think he's on as short a leash as everybody expects him to be."

Francona is going to have to make especially hard decisions on who to turn to in the 'pen and when.

Indians 'pen comes up big again

Miller was the perfect "break glass in case of emergency" option in the ALDS, but, again, a 40-pitch outing in a series that could involve seven games in nine days would clearly limit his looks on other days.

Salazar had loomed as a potential relief weapon, but the Indians decided his recovery from an elbow flexor strain just hasn't progressed well enough to thrust him back onto the active roster for this round.

Obviously, this will be a tough lineup for the Indians to navigate.

Francona on facing Blue Jays

The Blue Jays didn't quite live up to expectations of five or six runs on average this season, but they come into this ALCS in the midst of a torrid stretch in which their No. 2-3-4 hitters (Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista) have combined to hit .367 with five doubles, five homers, a 1.222 OPS, 14 runs and 15 RBIs in four postseason wins. They present an interesting dynamic in that they are more aggressive than Boston on first pitches but also selective, on measure, with the highest rate of pitches per plate appearance in the Majors this season.

"We've got to put some runs up against them, and hopefully we do it right away, from the first game of the series," Bautista said. "The more runs and taxing pitches that we can put on those guys early, it's going to make it more difficult for them in a not-so-short series like this series is."

"Not-so-short" is the operative phrase here. A best-of-seven series is just plain different, and that's something the Indians acknowledge. There's nothing fun about losing two stud starters, as the Tribe did in September. And yet, Francona, Callaway and Co. are making the best of a bad situation, trying to come up with ways to maximize what they have.

"When you lose two pitchers like that late," said Francona, "I'm not sure you can move on conventionally and cover that."

So the Indians are doing it a different way. And this best-of-seven set will be the ultimate test of their creative thinking.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.