The Cleveland Indians have an opportunity to sweep their way into the ALCS. What must the team do to finish off the Red Sox?
The home field was defended, and now the Cleveland Indians have a chance to sweep the Boston Red Sox on Sunday. After winning the first two games of the ALDS at Progressive Field, the Tribe is just one win away from moving on to the League Championship Series, and could do so on Sunday at Fenway Park.
With the commanding lead, though, memories of playoff disappointments past have come rushing back. Cleveland held a 2-0 lead in the 1999 ALDS against Boston, and a 3-1 lead in the 2007 ALCS, only to see the Red Sox roar back and put an end to its postseason run.
The 2016 Indians are not those teams, however, and played nearly flawless baseball in Games One and Two. They have the clear advantage in Game Three despite the hostile environment it will played in, and can put those old ghosts to rest.
What must the Tribe do to win the day in New England?
Fenway is a hitter’s ballpark, and it’s no secret that Tomlin, who will be on the mound to start Game Three, has a penchant for giving up home runs. The 36 longballs he allowed during the regular season were the second-most in the American League, but it’s important to note that only ball left the yard against him after August 30th, a span of 26.2 innings.
“I think it was probably going back and understanding the pitch selection I had and executing the pitches that I was throwing,” Tomlin said Saturday. “I wasn’t executing very well in the month of August and I paid for it.
After struggling mightily in the month of August, Tomlin’s newfound effectiveness may have something to do with his pitch selection. The 31-year old cut back on using his cutter by more than 10 percent, opting to throw his sinker and curveball more often.
The effect of this adjustment on balls in play is apparent when looking at the data. Tomlin’s cutter continued to have high line drive and fly ball percentages, but his sinker induced ground balls at a 75 percent rate. It’s a small sample size, but the increased sinker usage appears to have helped keep the ball in the ballpark, and against Boston’s potent offense, that will be a key for Tomlin.
Get After Buchholz
At one point in the season, Clay Buchholz lost his spot in the Red Sox starting rotation (much like Tomlin), and there was talk of his time with the club coming to an end. Instead, the 32-year old right-hander used his time in the bullpen to right himself (again, much like Tomlin), and over the final two months of the regular season regained his form.
Buchholz compiled a 3.02 earned run average in August and September, allowing just 17 runs in 50.2 innings. In five starts in the final month, he held opponents to a .219/.291/.343 slash line and an OPS+ of just 74.
The key is to get to Buchholz early in the game, like most pitchers. In the first inning, opponents are slashing .333/.418/.619 against him with a 163 OPS+. In those innings, his ERA is 6.86, his highest mark by inning by far. If Cleveland wants to land a knockout punch against Boston, a quick start against Buchholz is key.
Don’t Fear Fenway
The Indians went 1-2 against the Red Sox at Fenway this season, being outscored 16-7. The Tribe offense slashed an abysmal .190/.281/.328 in those games, and the pitching staff yielded a .298/.387/.500 slash line to the BoSox, posting a 5.76 ERA.
A three-game sample size of course means nothing, but there are few venues in baseball quite like Fenway Park, and particularly in the postseason on the brink of elimination, Boston and its fanbase will do everything possible to make things tough on Cleveland.
“I understand this ballpark is unique and the fan base and all that stuff is pretty cool, pretty rowdy,” Tomlin said. It’s going to be a good atmosphere to pitch in, but I’m going to go out there and treat it as just another game and keep executing pitches and keep our team in the game.”
As several Indians players said after the first two games of the series, the team is “locked in.” With an opportunity to vanquish the Red Sox in their house and move one step closer to the ultimate goal of a World Series, the Tribe has to stay that way. They’ve already done more than most of the experts thought they could, and keeping the “Cleveland Against the World” train rolling deeper into October would be sweet for the club and for their fans.