MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Go ahead and question Tito, but don't doubt him

Francona's call to start Bauer in Game 1 of ALDS a wise decision

Go ahead and question Tito, but don't doubt him

CLEVELAND -- In the 48 or so hours leading up to Game 1 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan, Indians manager Terry Francona's decision to start Trevor Bauer ahead of Corey Kluber came into question.

It was fair to question. It was right to question. It was responsible to question. Not even a World Series-winning manager is immune to questions, especially when he temporarily puts his Cy Young Award winner on the shelf.

So question Francona all you want. I know I did. But don't doubt him.

Game Date Results Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 5 CLE 4, NYY 0 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 6 CLE 9, NYY 8 (13) Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 8 NYY 1, CLE 0 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 9 NYY 7, CLE 3 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 11 NYY 5, CLE 2 Watch

Francona long ago graduated from the realm of doubt to a tract of trust. And when Bauer cruised and experimental center fielder Jason Kipnis made the catch of the night in the Tribe's 4-0 victory over the Yankees, it was a reminder that in Tito's world, the questions are often answered effectively and affirmatively.

Bauer flirts with no-no in Game 1

"There is," Jay Bruce said, "a method to his madness."

Bauer was brilliant, and let's not surrender too much of the credit he deserves to the manager who sent him to the mound. Bauer confounded a deep and powerful lineup with a bewildering breaking ball that plays off his rare ability to execute the fastball up in the zone.

And Kipnis? The catch he made to rob Chase Headley of extra bases in the third inning had a 26 percent catch probability. It was a four-star play, per Statcast™'s metrics.

Kipnis takes flight to rob Yanks of it

The players play. And these guys played well.

But even if Bauer had been beaten and even if Kipnis' diving attempt had come up short, there is something unusual about the way even the unorthodox goes virtually unnoticed in the clubhouse Francona commands.

"Nothing [negative] was said about [the Kluber decision]," said pitcher Josh Tomlin said. "Nothing at all. Even Kluber said something like, 'You can put me in the bullpen if you want to.' When the best pitcher in baseball says he'll go to the bullpen, that speaks to the leadership in this clubhouse and what this club is built for -- to win the World Series."

Bauer K's eight over 6 2/3

It is a statement of the obvious to say a 102-win team is good enough to win the World Series. But what stands out about this squad is the sheer scope of strange circumstances that have taken shape on the postseason roster and how none of those strange circumstances seem strange to the players themselves.

Can we just reiterate here that Kipnis is now Cleveland's center fielder?

Statcast: Kipnis' diving grab

Or that starters Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger are in the bullpen, ahead of three guys (Dan Otero, Nick Goody and Zach McAllister) who each logged at least 50 appearances and each had an ERA of less than 3.00?

Or that Lonnie Chisenhall, who had just six at-bats in the last two weeks of the regular season, started Game 1 of a postseason series because Francona wanted to "get him some reps" -- as if this were Game 1 of the Cactus League season?

Or that Michael Brantley is on the roster as a pinch-hitter despite having just three plate appearances since Aug. 8?

None of this stuff is normal. But Francona has created an atmosphere in which players are numb to the lack of normalcy because they are responsive to the bigger task at hand.

Shop for Indians postseason gear

"We have the best reliever in baseball [Andrew Miller] pitching in the seventh inning or the fifth inning," closer Cody Allen said. "That's the mentality and makeup of this club that's taken shape over the last few years. If there's a need, guys are waiting in line with their hands up to fill it."

Miller strikes out Bird

Regarding Allen's point about Miller, remember when Francona brought the lefty into the fifth inning of Game 1 of last year's ALDS against the Red Sox? That really could have gone either way. Francona had a lump in his throat as Miller rack up a 40-pitch count in his two innings of work, and he admitted later that "there's not a lot of difference between being smart and being dumb."

But when you come out on the right side of that line as often as Francona does, you see the difference he makes in the dugout. His decisions are a matter of gumption not gut, and they are fine-tuned by the legwork he puts into interpersonal relationships.

"He's got a good feel for the game," Allen said. "He grew up in a big league clubhouse, played in the big leagues for 10 years, has been a coach for a long time and managed some really good clubs. So he's got an unbelievable feel for the pulse of his team and the game around him."

How far does this feel go? It has been pointed out that the biggest risk with the Kluber decision might be a product of precipitation. There remains a strong chance of rain here Friday, and if Game 2 gets postponed and pushed back a day, the whole idea of bringing back Kluber on regular rest for Game 5 (if necessary) on Wednesday goes kaput. That's one reason it was fair to question Francona.

Again, though, don't doubt Tito. Francona has probably even gotten Mother Nature to buy into his plan.

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.