With David Ortiz playing out the final games of his incredible career, there is probably no group of people who are happier to see number 34 hang up his batting gloves than the relief pitchers of Major League Baseball. Big Papi has earned the title of The Greatest Clutch Hitter in Red Sox History on the backs of lefty specialists, journeyman middle relievers, starters banished to the pen, stud setup men and lock-down closers alike. Tonight, 2012 Cy Young Award Winner David Price faces off against 2014 Cy Young Award Winner Corey Kluber for a pivotal Game 2, promising another pitching duel in a postseason that has already given us two incredible ones in just four games. If that is what ends up happening, the stage will be set for another iconic moment in the legacy of the Large Father.
Ortiz’s late-game importance today would be obvious even if he did not have all those iconic October moments to his name. The Indians have exactly one lefty on the entire staff for the series. That lefty is our old friend, Andrew Miller, however. Miller is as unhittable as they come, whether facing righties or lefties, and if anyone had any doubts about Terry Francona’s willingness to go to Miller early and for extended time, Tito answered them in Game 1. Francona’s bullpen management has been widely lauded (especially in contrast to Showalter’s boner) and it is absolutely deserving of the praise. The Indians are in the driver’s seat in the series, with the lead and their ace set to pitch Game 2 in their home park. It certainly looks like Francona had a game plan and he executed it with Belichickian precision.
But last night was not a one-game playoff and while the game plan was well-conceived and perfectly executed, it was still a hard-fought win for the Indians. Both Miller and closer Cody Allen had season-high pitch counts. Even with those top arms handling all the high leverage situations for four innings, the Red Sox, led by David Ortiz’s eighth-inning, clutch-as-ever double, still got the tying run to 90 feet away late in the game and went down (check-)swinging with a runner on in the ninth, pressing Allen to his limit.
If David Price can live up to his reputation, his career numbers, and his paycheck, the Indians' inability to answer the threat of David Ortiz with anyone from the left-side other than Miller could be the key to the game. Better still, if Kluber doesn’t go deep or if this one goes into extra innings, another chapter in the Book of Papi will be outlined in full, waiting only for the details to be written in. Miller will pitch, of course, but expecting him to go as long as he did last night and remain effective is probably unrealistic. Allen will probably pitch as well, but he didn’t have the answer for David Ortiz in the eighth and he is even less likely to have it after the extended save of Game 1.
And Allen, along with everyone but Miller, is right-handed. In his career, Big Papi has hit righties for a .294/.397/.584 line and lefties for a .268/.338/.478 line. This season, his splits show a ridiculous .315/.407/.665 line against RHP and a still-pretty-awesome .313/.382/.485 line against LHP. That last number in those lines is the scary one if you are Terry Francona and the Indians. David Ortiz is one of the toughest outs in the game, regardless of which hand the pitcher throws with, but his series-changing power is far greater if you have a righty facing him (see Benoit, Joaquin). Miller is presumably there to get him the first time the game is on the line, but he won’t be able to do it twice.
The Indians lack of left-handed pitching might be glaring on first look at their playoff roster, but it actually hasn’t been much of an issue for them this season. Many of the right-handed relievers below Miller and Allen on the depth chart have been pretty effective against left-handed hitting. Dan Otero has been so good against lefties that he should probably be Francona’s Plan-B for Ortiz, Jackie Bradley Jr., Sandy Leon and Brock Holt should one of those guys come up in high leverage after Miller has pitched. Otero held lefties to a .192/.248/.274 line, just a hair better than his line against same-handed bats. In 26 innings worth of plate appearances against lefties, Mike Clevinger held them to .176/.272/.233. Bryan Shaw was not as successful against LHH as Otero and Clevinger, but he did strike 26 lefty bats out in 26.1 innings against them this year (tempered only by the 14 walks he issued to them). Overall, with their excellent (and injury-plagued) starting pitching factored in the Indians actually managed the third-best wOBA against left-handed hitting this season. Only 8.2 of those innings came from Andrew Miller and his ridiculous .161/.161/.290 line against lefties with Cleveland since the trade. To put that success in perspective, Boston was right behind them at number four despite having three left-handers in the rotation, Robbie Ross Jr. and an array of wea LOOGY options. The Indians have reason to fear David Ortiz, but their lack of lefty relievers isn’t as big an advantage for Boston as it appears on paper.
None of this will matter if Price falls flat or Corey Kluber pulls a full Bumgarner on the Sox, but close games seem to be the rule in the playoffs these days and no one is as at home on the October stage as the Shakespeare of Slam, David Ortiz. What he does against Miller and company may be the biggest story of Game 2.