The most popular entrance music for MLB relief pitchers, by far, is Johnny Cash's rendition of God's Gonna Cut You Down. Joe Beimel used it pitching for the Mariners in 2007. Drew Storen and Glen Perkins have used it for years. The two best relievers who've used it are Indians right-hander Cody Allen, who typically jogs in from the pen to pitch the ninth, and Andrew Miller, the Tribe's unhittable ace reliever, who shelved the song after coming over in a deadline deal with the Yankees, but is just as terrifying on the mound as the message the song conveys.
Go listen to Cash's warning song about sinners being unable to escape God's judgment, though, and you'll find more than just a nod to Biblical justice. "Sooner or later, God'll cut you down" is not only a call for karma. It's a reminder that any trend that keeps running for a long time will eventually come crashing down. In other words, it's a song about statheads' most frequently cited concept: regression to the mean.
Bullpen heroics aside, Game 3 of the ALCS was a story of regression. Multiple players who had been slumping for a long time came back to cut 'em down.
Mike Napoli was the king of the regression monsters Monday night. In his first 110 games of the season, Napoli was a beast, batting .266/.350/.528 with 29 home runs, seemingly generating a #PartyAtNapolis every other night, and making the one-year, $7 million deal Cleveland gave him over the winter look like the steal of the century. Then, he suddenly collapsed, limping to the finish line by batting an anemic .157/.292/.279 in his final 40 games of the regular season. When the big man added to that frustration by going 2 for 18 in his first games of this postseason (0 for 25 against right-handed pitchers going back to Sept. 23), you might've wondered if the soon-to-be-35-year-old veteran might finally be showing his age.
So much for that. Napoli rediscovered his powerful swing at the perfect time in Game 3, crushing two extra-base hits, scoring twice, and knocking in two runs. The explosion started in the first. With two outs, Napoli clubbed a drive to deep right-center, chasing Jose Bautista back to the wall. The ball hit Bautista's glove and bounced out, ending up as a run-scoring double for Napoli to give Cleveland an early 1-0 lead. With the score 1-1 entering the fourth, Napoli struck again, this time pummeling a Marcus Stroman fastball over the wall in dead center, a 411-foot bomb that restored the Indians' one-run lead.
The coup de grace came in the sixth. After drawing a one-out walk, Napoli quickly spotted a Joe Biagini pitch in the dirt and scampered to second safely. That set the stage for another Indians run. That marked merely the latest in a series-long run of Indians baserunners trouncing their Blue Jays counterparts, a trend that reflected both teams' respective baserunning ability all season long.
The other Indians batter to reverse a long stretch of malaise was second baseman Jason Kipnis. Like Napoli, Kipnis faded badly down the stretch this season, batting .222/.316/.373 in his final 40 games of the regular season. He fared a lot better in Cleveland's ALDS sweep of the Red Sox, going 4 for 11 with a home run. But Kipnis returned to his slumping ways, going 0 for 9 to start the ALCS, an early 0 for 2 at the start of Game 3 included. He too answered the bell in a big spot anyway, hammering another Stroman heater that caught too much of the plate into the right-center field bleachers.
The big showings by Napoli and Kipnis after long stretches of futility offered a poignant reminder that streaks typically offer little to no value when it comes to making predictions on what might happen next. Barring extenuating circumstances such as injuries curtailing a player's performance, the smart money is always on that player eventually reverting back to his career norms.
The most dramatic examples of that kind of bounceback come from superstars who got labeled as playoff chokers due to failures in limited playing time during October. Barry Bonds was a postseason choker ... until he smashed everyone to bits in 2002 and nearly pushed that year's Giants team to a World Series victory by himself. Alex Rodriguez was a front-runner accusing of saving his majestic home runs for meaningless games in which his team already led by seven runs ... until he steamrolled everyone in his path during the 2009 Yankees championship run. Clayton Kershaw was a regular-season god who folded every fall ... until he stepped up this October, not only pitching beautifully but also excelling on short rest and even as a bullpen stopper.
The problem now for the Blue Jays is that they can't wait one second longer for their hitters to curry favor with the regression gods. One game from elimination, Toronto's normally powerful hitters have produced a total of three runs in the first three games of this series. They managed a single run in a Game 2 started by normally tateriffic right-hander Josh Tomlin.
In Game 3, they mustered only two runs, despite Cleveland's starting pitcher Trevor Bauer being forced to leave the game in the first inning, after the 10-stitch cut he suffered on his pitching hand while tinkering with his drone burst open in a splatter of blood. By going down meekly against an armada of relievers, the Jays became the first team to lose a postseason game against an opponent that saw no pitcher record more than five outs.
Making matters worse for the Jays are some of those extenuating circumstances. It's a poorly kept secret at this point that Toronto's starting catcher Russell Martin is ailing badly, hitting just above .100 during the past month, while also struggling at tasks he usually performs well, such as blocking pitches. It's not as clear if perennial power threat Jose Bautista is a positive regression candidate of his own based on a random 3-for-21 slide during the playoffs, or if he's still suffering through the aftereffects of his own ailment, in Bautista's case a knee injury that dumped him on the disabled list in August.
Even the subtler things have hurt the Blue Jays. Would manager John Gibbons have trusted Marcus Stroman and his ugly results on his third time through batting orders (first time: .666 OPS allowed; second time: .630 OPS allowed; third time .847 OPS allowed) against Cleveland's potent offense in the sixth inning if Joaquin Benoit hadn't suffered a season-ending calf injury while running in from the bullpen during a dumb brawl with the Yankees in September? We'll never know.
At this point, though, the Jays can't even invoke injuries in good conscience as the reason for their struggles. Not when the Indians are missing two dynamic right-handed starters in Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, with Bauer becoming the latest casualty for a rotation that keeps getting bailed out by an incredible bullpen that proved it could handle any challenge given to them, even needing to record 25 outs against a talented Toronto lineup in front of a sellout crowd of riled-up Canadians.
The Jays faithful now have to hope that regression arrives to save the day, and that Toronto becomes only the second team ever to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-7 MLB playoff series. If not, the specter of Bauer continuing his months-long troll job of Jays fans with one last bit of mockery will be a lousy memory to ponder until next spring.