The Indians were supposed to be outgunned. The Red Sox boasted the most potent offense in baseball, surging down the stretch to win the AL East handily, and peaking heading into October. Meanwhile, two of Cleveland's top three starters got hurt, suffering injuries that knocked them out of the ALDS and leaving the club's pitching staff seemingly too shorthanded to hang with the best teams in the American League. An amazing season capped by the Tribe's first AL Central title in nine years seemed destined to end with an early playoff bow-out.
Instead, the Indians are moving on after sweeping the powerful Red Sox out of the playoffs with a 4-3 win at Fenway Park in what turned out to be the final game of David Ortiz's memorable career for the Red Sox. A career that ended without Ortiz getting that one last big moment we expected, after being lifted for a pinch-runner in the eighth inning and watching his team fall just short.
Injuries to Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco didn't faze the rest of this Indians team. More than that, their absence forced the whole team to be sharper, from Terry Francona's managing to a bullpen that would be asked to shoulder a heavier load.
We'll get to Francona and the bullpen in a bit. But first, we must acknowledge one of the most unlikely heroes in recent playoff history. If not for a soft-tossing right-hander who hadn't gotten anyone out for months, the Red Sox would still be alive, and Indians fans would still be sweating.
Josh Tomlin is one of the most enigmatic pitchers that the game has seen in years. In 174 innings pitched this season, Tomlin surrendered 36 home runs, a rate of 1.86 long balls per nine innings that trailed only Jered Weaver and James Shields for the highest mark in the majors. Yet he also issued just 20 bases on balls all season, the lowest walk rate in all of baseball. The last time he walked a batter was...August 25th!
Given that combination of outcomes, combined with the fourth-slowest fastball velocity of any starter, Tomlin is a pitcher who lives on the edge. He relies on guile and pinpoint control to survive in a world of terrifying fireballers. Given how severely the numbers tilt in a hitter's favor when he gets ahead, every pitcher has a strong incentive to get ahead in the count early. For Tomlin, the prospect of slinging an 87-mph fastball to a hulking slugger on a 2-0 count practically begs him to throw first-pitch strikes.
In Game 3, he was a first-pitch-strike master. And the Red Sox seemed powerless to do anything about it.
Dustin Pedroia, bottom 1st
Pedroia has never been a prolific walker. But he still owns one of the best batting eyes in the game, perennially ranking among the toughest hitters in baseball to strike out, with a keen sense for when to take pitches, when to spoil them, and when to swing for the Monster. But at the start of this at-bat, Tomlin leaves him little choice, firing a nearly unhittable 88-mph fastball that just clips the outside corner for called strike one. Tomlin goes on to induce a groundout to third on a pitch at Pedroia's ankles, retiring Boston's dangerous leadoff hitter.
Brock Holt, bottom 1st
Given all the big bats in the Red Sox lineup, Holt is a curious choice to man one of the most important spot in the batting order, and thus the one that statheads suggest should feature a team's best hitter...or close to it. Not that Holt or anyone else would be likely to do much with Tomlin's first pitch here...an 87-mph fastball right at the bottom of the strike zone, just across the knees. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, an even tougher pitch that's just as low and right on the corner, Holt rolls over for a groundout to second.
Mookie Betts, bottom 1st
Tomlin has a plan, and he's going to keep executing it until someone does something about it. Facing AL MVP candidate Mookie Betts, Tomlin again goes low and away with a fastball, the hitter again takes it, and our soft-tossing protagonist is ahead 0-1 for the third straight time. Betts lines out to right and we're off and running.
David Ortiz, bottom 2nd
As if the stakes aren't high enough for Red Sox fans staring at elimination, this could also be the final game of Ortiz's career. After so many incredible moments with so much on the line, you get the sense that he has at least one more bout of heroics up his sleeve. Not willing to cede any ground, Tomlin challenges Ortiz anyway, chucking a fastball on the inside edge that Ortiz embellishes into a spinaway, in an attempt to draw ball one. No dice, as home plate umpire Tony Randazzo rings up a fourth straight first-strike call for Tomlin. The right-hander loses the zone thereafter though, walking Ortiz on five pitches.
Hanley Ramirez, bottom 2nd
As great as Ortiz has been in what's arguably the best final season for any hitter ever, the final few weeks of Ramirez's season were even more jaw-dropping: From Aug. 27 to the last day of the season, Hanley batted an incredible .325/.404/.700. Tomlin's not going to stop filling up the strike zone, though: His first pitch to Ramirez is an 88-mph, knee-high fastball on the outside corner. Ramirez watches it sail by for...you guessed it, strike one. Tomlin misses with his location on the second pitch, tossing a sinker that splits the middle of the plate. He gets away with it, though, as Ramirez flies out to center.
Xander Bogaerts, bottom 2nd
Always a frequent user of the cutter, Tomlin ramped that usage to career highs this year, throwing that pitch nearly 41 percent of the time. He does the same here, starting Bogaerts with a cutter that breaks back toward the middle of the plate, though still near the knees, for a sixth straight called strike one. Bogaerts gets his revenge two pitches later, smacking a single off the Green Monster to heighten the threat.
Andrew Benintendi, bottom 2nd
For the first time in seven batters, Tomlin misses the zone with his first pitch, an 87-mph fastball low and away. A six-pitch battle ensues, with Tomlin places that sixth pitch in his trademark perfect spot: right on the outside black and near the bottom of the zone. Benintendi raps a grounder to all-world defender Francisco Lindor, who steps on second for one, then fires to first to complete the inning-ending double play.
Sandy Leon, bottom 3rd
For the first time in eight batters, Tomlin starts an at-bat with something other than a fastball or cutter. This time it's a big curveball, one that drops into the strike zone at 72 mph for yet another called strike one. Two pitches later, he catches Leon looking at strike three. It won't be the last time Tomlin rings up a backwards K.
Jackie Bradley Jr., bottom 3rd
For just the second time, Tomlin misses the zone to start an at-bat, going up and in with a 90-mph fastball for ball one. He then peppers Bradley with curveballs, throwing three of them over the next four pitches. Finally on a 2-2 count, Tomlin shows off his painting skills, ticking the edge of the outside corner with a 90-mph fastball. Randazzo rings up Bradley. Two outs.
Dustin Pedroia, bottom 3rd
Ten batters in, someone finally swings at the first pitch! Unfortunately for Pedroia, it's also a rare wild one from Tomlin, a 76-mph curve that breaks to the shins. Pedroia slaps it to third, third baseman Jose Ramirez makes a great play, and the side is retired in order.
During that third inning, reporter Sam Ryan asks Francona how aggressive he plans to be with his bullpen. Especially shutdown left-hander Andrew Miller, and especially in Cleveland's first game in three days, following a travel day and Sunday's rainout. Francona replies that he'll certainly use his pen aggressively, but that his team needs to grab a lead first. It's iffy logic given how important the situation could be if, say, the Indians are tied and a situation warrants relief help. But if the Indians can somehow find that lead, the prospect of Miller and Cody Allen taking over most of (if not all of) the rest of the game offers a promising outlook for the Indians.
Tyler Naquin, top 4th
The rookie cracks a two-run single to right on a hanging changeup, giving the Tribe that sought-after lead.
Brock Holt, bottom 4th
Tomlin finally misses with his location, and misses badly, tossing a middle-middle meatball that's just begging to be crushed. Holt instead watches helplessly as it floats by for strike one. Two pitches later comes another fat pitch, this one an 87-mph fastball up and over the plate. Again, Holt's bat stays glued to his shoulders for reasons unknown. Strike three called, for the third time in the past four batters.
Mookie Betts, bottom 4th
Though he's mixing in a few curves, Tomlin's heavy fastball usage -- especially early in the count -- has left hitters susceptible to surprise benders. Betts sees one such 76-mph hook curve into the zone for another called strike one. The next pitch could've been a big mistake, as Tomlin's 90-mph fastball came in straight, down the middle of the plate, and up just above belt-high. Betts flies out to center anyway.
David Ortiz, bottom 4th
It's a second straight first-pitch curve from Tomlin, this one just missing low and outside. The third pitch of the at-bat is another Tomlin miscue: a straight fastball with little movement that doesn't end up costing him, as Ortiz grounds out to first to end the inning.
Hanley Ramirez, bottom 5th
Drew Pomeranz has replaced Clay Buchholz on the mound for the Sox, but Tomlin is still dealing for the Tribe. Ramirez becomes just the second of 14(!) batters to swing at the first pitch, but it's a tailing fastball on the inside part of the plate that fools Ramirez enough for him to foul the pitch off. The next pitch is a cutter that sails far out of reach for a whiff. Two pitches later, Tomlin pulls out his brush and paints yet again, with a fastball that induces a harmless flyout to right.
Xander Bogaerts, bottom 5th
Umpires are human. When they see a pitcher miss his target -- especially after he's been peppering his catcher's glove with on-target bullets all day -- they tend to give the hitter the benefit of the doubt. In this case it's a first-pitch, 90-mph cutter that catches plenty of plate, but still elicits a ball-one call, because Tomlin forces his catcher Roberto Perez to move his glove too much for the ump's liking. Two pitches later, Bogaerts has a 2-1 count in his favor, and promptly bangs a single to center...his second hit of the game, as well as the second for the Sox.
Andrew Benintendi, bottom 5th
Tomlin's first pitch to the Red Sox rookie left fielder ends up thigh-high and down the middle, but it's also a fastball with tons of crooked movement, enough to make Benintendi flinch and take another strike one. Two pitches later, Tomlin throws a very rare changeup that's low enough to be an effective pitch. But Benintendi drives the ball the other way anyway, the ball nipping the big wall about one-third of the way up for Boston's first damage of the game, an RBI double. In 29 other parks, that solidly-hit flyball still probably lands in the left-fielder's glove, probably near the warning track. At Fenway, it's a Green Monster double, and the worst damage the Sox will inflict against Tomlin all game.
Sandy Leon, bottom 5th
Now just a single away from having Boston tie the game up on him, Tomlin starts Leon with an 89-mph fastball that's about two inches off the outside corner...but Randazzo's back in the pitcher's corner, signaling strike one. Here again, we're reminded how vital getting that first strike is: Tomlin won't throw a single pitch in the strike zone this whole at-bat. But with Leon working from behind (and perhaps a bit anxious in a crucial spot), Boston's catcher swings at two different pitches at his shoe-tops, whiffing for the second out of the inning.
Jackie Bradley Jr., bottom 5th
Tomlin misses on a fastball to start this at-bat too, but this time doesn't get that quick strike-one call. What he does get is a toothless groundout to first, ending Boston's biggest threat of the game and maintaining Cleveland's 2-1 advantage.
Coco Crisp, top 6th
A two-run homer over the Monster in left-center. By Coco Crisp, he of the .208/.323/.377 batting line after coming to Cleveland in an August 31 trade with the A's. When it comes to unexpected heroes, Tomlin's got company.
Dustin Pedroia, bottom 6th
Tomlin is back to his old tricks, hurling an 88-mph, first-pitch, middle-out fastball that's taken for strike one. Pedroia's a bear to handle, though: For the second time this game, he swings at a pitch closer not far from his ankles. This time it's a clean single to center.
Keenly aware of the third-time-through-the-order penalty, and doubly aware of it with a back-of-the-rotation starter like Tomlin on the hill, Francona summons Miller to replace his right-hander. Miller would go on to give up a double to Betts and a sacrifice fly by Ortiz later that inning, leaving Tomlin charged with a second run. Still, his line for the game is terrific given the degree of difficulty involved with facing baseball's best lineup, in one of the scariest parks for pitchers: five-plus innings pitched, two runs, four hits, one walk, and four strikeouts...with the first run scoring on a Fenway-special double, and the second one three batters after Tomlin had left the game.
What was really incredible, though, was the way Tomlin mesmerized Red Sox hitters throughout the game on the first pitch of at-bats. Of the 19 batters that Tomlin faced, 13 of them started the count down 0-1, with 12 of those 13 absorbing strike one without a swing. Just one Red Sock put a first pitch in play against Tomlin, and that was Pedroia, who grounded out to third on a pitch out of the zone. If you ever wanted to learn how to win a game with mediocre stuff, Tomlin's Game 3 start would offer a fantastic first lesson.
The Indians wouldn't have won this game on Tomlin's efforts alone. It took a two-run single by a kid and a two-run homer by an old Indian back for a second tour of duty in the twilight of his career. It took a hyper-aggressive approach by Francona, one that's become even more reactive with Salazar and Carrasco out and the skipper monitoring every little blip shown by the soft-tossing Tomlin, and the talented but erratic righty Trevor Bauer. It took a huge 75 pitches(!!) by Miller and Cody Allen (plus 11 from Bryan Shaw) to record the final 12 outs of the game, with Allen throwing just 19 strikes in 40 pitches, but getting bailed out on some bad swings by Red Sox hitters, plus a couple of lucky breaks. Salazar might try to return to action for the ALCS, depending on how his forearm responds.
Still, the formula for the Indians is now clear: Get a respectable showing by the starter and a couple of timely hits from an opportunistic lineup, then bring in Miller as quickly as possible, giving the Indians an ace reliever earlier in the game than any other teams dares try. Miller against the thunderous middle of the Blue Jays order could create some scintillating matchups in a playoff season that's already seen multiple barnburner games.
But whatever happens from here, Tomlin will have a memory to cherish for a lifetime. He'll remember the day he stared down the most devastating hitters in baseball, and brought them to their knees. One befuddling first-pitch strike at a time.