Francona was right


If Trevor Bauer is as good as he looked Thursday, why then does he have a career 4.36 ERA and .738 OPS?

Welcome to the enigma that is Bauer’s career, in which his often shutout stuff produces pedestrian results. Apparently, Indians manager Terry Francona is closer to solving Bauer than the Yankees were Thursday night in Cleveland’s 4-0 Game 1 victory.

In a Game 1 AL Cy Young winner-to-be Corey Kluber seemingly should have pitched, Bauer delivered what would have been a Kluber-like performance had it been three or four outs longer: 6.2 innings, two hits, no runs, one walk, eight strikeouts. Ken Rosenthal in The Athletic: “Francona has displayed such a magic touch the past two postseasons that even when he’s wrong, he’s right.”

Thus the ALDS is now reduced to this: In the next four games, the Yankees will have to beat Kluber in Cleveland at least once, twice if they don’t win both games at Yankee Stadium.

On a day Justin Verlander and Chris Sale started, who would have thought the only pitcher to get an out in the seventh inning was Bauer, who failed to do so 18 times in 31 starts this season. It’s a mark of how bullpen-oriented baseball is in 2017 that Bauer, in no mood to plead to finish the inning, was accepting congratulatory high-fives even before Francona reached the mound to relieve him. Imagine Bob Gibson doing so; he would have been shooing teammates away.

Much has been made of Bauer’s improvement, which is tangible, over the second half of the season. But even in his last 78 innings of 2017, Bauer threw 11 home runs. Thursday against a team which hit a MLB-high 241 of them this year, he threw none (Todd Frazier hit one early that would have been, but pulled it foul).

There’s a reason for Bauer’s ascent, and it’s as simple as he’s tried to make the game complicated for most of his first four seasons. “Tom Seaver said the best pitch in baseball is strike one,” Keith Hernandez said on the post-game show, and while strike three might be better, the point stands.

In the first 118 starts of Bauer’s career, he walked one or no batters 31 times, and two of those were starts where he didn’t finish the second inning. In his last six starts, Bauer has done so five times, including Thursday. In his last 37.2 innings, Bauer has walked six batters, and three of those came in one start. His 2.38 ERA over that stretch — stipulating that it’s a small sample size — is almost two runs better than his career’s.

Bauer’s control was so good that he left Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius agape after a fastball veered over the plate to end the fourth. Five of Bauer’s eight strikeouts were looking, and the only generous call was on a curveball that seemed a touch inside to Aaron Judge in the sixth.

(Bauer and Gregorius were traded for each other, indirectly, in the 2012 three-way trade that brought Bauer and Bryan Shaw from Arizona to the Indians. The Reds sent Gregorius to the D-backs, and got one year of Shin-Soo Choo. Gregorius went to the Yankees in another three-way trade in which Arizona got Robbie Ray and the Tigers Shane Greene. All of that helps explain why the Yankees, Indians and Diamondbacks are in this year’s playoffs, and the Tigers and Reds are not).

Bauer said he could remember a lot of game where he had “better stuff,” than Thursday, and that his best might have been a September game against the White Sox last year. “I gave up five runs in like 5.1 innings,” he said. It was six, but who’s counting.

Bauer was 21 when he debuted in the majors, 22 when he debuted with the Indians, 24 when he became a major-leaguer for good, 25 when he started last season in the bullpen. Pitching in a time of launch rates and exit velocity isn’t easy, and pitchers, like quarterbacks, often need experience and second chances. Maybe Bauer is slowly coming to realize, it’s not just how good your stuff is, but how you use it.

Astros 8, Red Sox 2: Maybe it wasn’t such a good thing the Red Sox clinched on Saturday and didn’t need Chris Sale to win the season’s final game. All that rest didn’t help Sale, who led MLB in innings pitched this season and looked it Thursday. He gave up three home runs in five innings, two to Jose Altuve, who hit a third off Austin Maddox. Last year the Red Sox were swept by the Indians after Rick Porcello lost Game 1 (Bauer started for the Indians, but was knocked out in the fifth), and a similar fate seems to await this year. The Astros have Dallas Kuechel in Game 2, and the Red Sox have Doug Fister in Game 3. Neither sounds promising. The Red Sox lost not only Game 1, but infielder Eduardo Nunez, who hit .321 for the Red Sox in 38 games, for the series. That won’t help a team that’s already overmatched.

 

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