Like a lot of people, I don’t gamble, but, like a lot of people, I have done it before. I was a sophomore in college, and I thought I knew an awful lot about baseball, so I thought, you know what, I bet I can monetize this. I decided to lean on my baseball expertise to bet on individual baseball games. I bet for two days, I lost about four hundred dollars, and I haven’t tried it again since. I’ve learned more about baseball over the decade, but, have I, really?
If there’s one thing we know about baseball, it’s that we can’t predict it. The smaller the sample, the wilder it gets. But we can be so, so easily tricked, and never is that more clear than it is in the playoffs. In the playoffs, see, individual games are under greater scrutiny. And when you get to the World Series, people are searching for possible keys everywhere. *Everything* is important. This pitcher’s vulnerability could be exploited. That player on the bench will have a good matchup. The guy over there’s a bad defender. We examine these games in so much detail that we start to convince ourselves the games can be actually predicted. We convince ourselves the games will make sense. Earlier Friday, in my chat, I fielded countless questions about the degree to which the Indians would be screwed in Game 3. Road park, Josh Tomlin pitching, wind blowing strongly out, DH in left field. It was all lining up for the Cubs. It was so easy to believe, yeah, this is the Cubs’ game. How couldn’t it be?
You can stare at a coin all you like, but heads or tails will still come up half the time. An exhaustively-examined game in the World Series is not meaningfully more predictable than an unexamined regular-season game in July. Give it one game at a time, and baseball’s likely to baseball. Give it one game at a time, and Tomlin and the Indians can knock off the Cubs 1-0 in a pretty extreme hitters’ environment.
In a sense, Terry Francona got to follow the familiar script. How did the Indians prevent enough runs? They went and got Andrew Miller in the fifth. He ceded the mound to Bryan Shaw, who is worse, but still good. And he ceded the mound to Cody Allen, who is worse than Miller, but better than Shaw. The three primary relievers recorded 13 outs. Seven of those were strikeouts. This is what the Indians have seemingly been doing all month.
But of course that’s only part of the story. Indians relievers faced 17 batters without allowing a run. Josh Tomlin faced 17 batters without allowing a run. The Tomlin part was the worrisome one — the Tomlin part was supposed to be the weakness. Tomlin is a contact pitcher, and the wind was blowing, and the Cubs are good. This isn’t how anyone expected it, for Tomlin to keep the opposition scoreless.
And, you know, he probably wouldn’t do it again. The circumstances were most definitely not good. But, when he needed to, Tomlin busted out one of those curveballs. He wasn’t supposed to pitch well against the Red Sox. He wasn’t supposed to pitch well against the Blue Jays. Tomlin has allowed three runs in 15.1 playoff innings. Just as his own success has allowed Andrew Miller to overshadow Cody Allen, Cleveland’s bullpen success has overshadowed the success of the rotation, which has a combined playoff ERA of 1.70. It takes a village to make Andrew Miller an overnight celebrity. He wouldn’t be known as he is if it weren’t for all the other parts pulling their weight.
Tomlin went far enough, and he got enough grounders. Any single game is a battle of execution, and Tomlin executed his pitches with greater frequency than Cubs opponents executed their swings. I don’t know why that is, and I don’t care to speculate, but the Cubs blinked, and then they were facing better pitchers all of a sudden. They missed their early opportunity, and then the assignment got tougher. The Indians squeezed out their one run, even though the game-winning at-bat did cost them another inning of Miller. Anyone would take that trade. Miller was no longer needed.
It’s important to point out the Indians didn’t play a perfect game. This wasn’t a case of the Cubs simply being suffocated. In terms of what some might consider fundamentals, Francisco Lindor bounced into a devastating bases-loaded double play in the fifth. Beyond that, though — Lindor was picked off in the top of the first. Rajai Davis was thrown out at third in the seventh. Jason Kipnis was thrown out at first in the seventh, when it looked like he could’ve or should’ve been safe. In the bottom half, Lonnie Chisenhall missed a fly ball that gave Jorge Soler three two-out bases. And then in the ninth, Mike Napoli fumbled Jason Heyward‘s two-out grounder. The Indians were far from flawless. This is a game they could’ve lost. With two on and two out in the ninth, Javier Baez fouled off a first-pitch fastball from Allen.
It was almost the same pitch he took deep against Johnny Cueto.
Baez just missed it, and he didn’t get a better chance. Allen didn’t throw another pitch in the zone. Baez struck out anyway. A checked-swing strike conceivably might’ve gone the other way —
…but Baez did appear to commit too much. The last pitch he swung at was more than four feet off the ground. Before that pitch, with the count two balls and two strikes, Baez stepped back, took a breath, and let out an audible “WHEW.” It was like some manifestation of the pressure of the moment. One thing Baez has shown this month is that he’s definitely able to handle the pressure, but on the last pitch of the game, he didn’t have much of a chance. His natural aggressiveness got the best of him, and Allen executed his high fastball perfectly. It was the entire game in one at-bat. Like the Indians, Allen wasn’t perfect, but one mistimed swing can work wonders. Baez missed the chance he got, and Allen didn’t supply other chances.
This wasn’t supposed to be a particularly winnable game, not for Cleveland, not given the circumstances, but one swing from Coco Crisp did all the damage they needed, and now it’s the Indians who are the World Series favorites. And as you project the series out, there could be another two starts from Corey Kluber. Win the two starts and the Indians win the championship. This game, they stole; those games, they could take, as they took Game 1. It’s how they would’ve drawn this up.
But now we get back into the problem we discussed at the beginning. There’s no such thing as “just take the Kluber games.” You can’t take the Kluber games for granted, in part because he’ll be on short rest, but in larger part because these are individual baseball games, against another good team with other good pitchers, and sometimes things go as you think, and other times Josh Tomlin blanks the Cubs in Chicago. The tricky part for the Indians is that there’s no guarantee they’re going to see more of the Kluber they saw a few days ago. Yet even the focus on the Kluber games is somewhat inappropriate, because there are other games in the series. Unpredictably winnable games. They just played nine innings of one of them.
Friday night, the Indians stole a baseball game. If it happened the same way in April, we wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. The calendar says it’s almost November. There’s a path to winning, now — winning the last thing to win — a path to winning without anymore theft.