CLEVELAND – The guy who has spent the last three months possibly redefining what it means to be a closer remains in awe of the guy who took his job this spring.
Sorry, Andrew Miller can’t help it. Aroldis Chapman’s stuff is so electric, it’s impossible to turn away.
“I love watching him pitch,” Miller said. “I don’t change the channel when he’s on TV.”
At the moment, his view is even better. The Cleveland Indians reliever can just glance over at the Chicago Cubs bullpen during the World Series to get his fix of Chapman’s seemingly endless stream of triple-digit fastballs.
“There’s a perception that it’s easy for him because he’s such an outlier,” Miller said. “But he’s got a tremendous work ethic and in the way he goes about getting himself prepared.”
Miller would know. They were in the bullpen together for 2 1/2 months with the New York Yankees this season. New York acquired Chapman last December, and the Cuban left-hander bumped Miller to a setup role when he returned from a domestic violence suspension in May. Miller had tied for second in the AL with 36 saves the year before.
The experiment lasted until the trade deadline. Treading water in late July, the Yankees sent Chapman to the Cubs and Miller to the Indians in exchange for prospects while committing to a full rebuild.
Three months later, the two players who began the season trying to help the Yankees win a 28th World Series title find themselves playing vital roles on teams that have combined for a small fraction of that number (four). Miller and the Indians can clinch the club’s first championship since 1948 on Tuesday night in Game 6, while Chapman and the Cubs are hoping for a chance to send it to a deciding Game 7 as Chicago tries to end a 108-year drought.
On the surface, Miller and Chapman could be carbon copies of each other: hard-throwing lefties who overwhelm batters with power. The reality is a bit more complex thanks in large part to the unorthodox way Cleveland manager Terry Francona deploys Miller.
In an era of clearly defined bullpen roles, Francona uses Miller as a 6-foot-7 piece of duct tape. Sometimes, the seventh inning needs to be patched up. Sometimes the eighth. Sometimes the sixth. Sometimes, all three. And Miller, a former first-round pick who spent the first half of his career trying to make it as a starter before the Boston Red Sox gave up and converted him into a reliever in 2012, has responded by putting together one of the most dominant postseason runs ever.
Nine times during the playoffs, Miller has jogged to the mound. The Indians are undefeated in those nine games. It’s not a coincidence. He’s entered as early as the fifth and as late as the eighth, recording at least four outs in every appearance. His numbers – 2-0 with a save and a 0.36 ERA, striking out 39 against just five walks – look like a typo or something out of a video game where “fatigue” has been turned off.
“Andrew’s the model of just pitch whenever,” Francona said. “The kid’s unbelievable.”
Even Miller is having a hard time describing the run he’s on, one fueled by a nearly unhittable slider that forces batters like Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo to play the baseball version of the lottery every time they swing.
“You just hope you pick the right lane,” Rizzo said.
Almost nobody has. Opponents are hitting .140 against Miller, who doesn’t seem to tire whether he’s throwing 17 pitches or 37. He attributes his elasticity to the gadgetry Cleveland’s training staff uses to keep him fresh and the survival instincts honed from the days when he was simply clinging to a spot on a major league roster.
“It’s not something you offer, it’s something you have to have,” he said. “If you’re not flexible, you’re not going to have a spot in the big leagues.”
Besides, as Miller points out, “there’s very few closers who become closers right away and fall into that routine.”
Meaning closers like Chapman, who took over the job in Cincinnati in 2012 and proceeded to make four straight All-Star teams. The 28-year-old is a meticulous creature of habit, so used to being used in the ninth inning – and almost exclusively the ninth inning – that Cubs manager Joe Maddon checked with Chapman before Game 5 about entering earlier.
The call ended up coming with one out in the seventh and Chicago up a run. Chapman responded by allowing just one hit over 2 2/3 innings to preserve a 3-2 victory and pick up his fourth save of the playoffs. The way Chapman went about his business, it was almost Miller-esque.
“That was impressive,” Francona said. “I mean, kind of like what Andrew’s done, he kind of did the same thing.”
It’s a performance the Cubs would love to see a couple more times.
“I like our chances when he’s in the game,” Cubs catcher David Ross said. “He’s a presence.”
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