Hazelwood: Francona plays chess — everyone else plays checkers

Mark Hazelwood • Oct 6, 2017 at 12:07 AM

CLEVELAND — Trevor Bauer walked off the mound to a raucous ovation with two outs in the seventh inning of Thursday's American League Division Series Game 1 vs. the New York Yankees.

It was hard to determine if the ovation was as much for Bauer as some of it may have been for Indians manager Terry Francona.

For several days, Francona was widely questioned and criticized for not starting his two best pitchers — Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco — in the first two games of the series at Progressive Field.

Francona instead opted for Bauer, who again made the legendary manager look smarter than the rest of us.

All Bauer did was pitch 6 2/3 scoreless innings — including the first 5 1/3 innings without allowing a hit — and struck out eight batters with one walk on two hits as Cleveland's vaunted pitching staff posted yet another shutout in a 4-0 Game 1 win.

Bauer had thrown nine first-pitch strikes to the 13 batters he faced, and of his 98 pitches, 62 went for strikes as he became the first Indians pitcher in franchise history to start a postseason game with five-plus no-hit innings.

That surpassed the previous mark of four no-hit innings to start Game 1 of the 1948 World Series by Bob Feller, and Game 2 of the 1954 World Series by Early Wynn.

And now, the Tribe takes a 1-0 lead into today's Game 2 with Kluber — unquestionably the runaway favorite for the AL Cy Young and the best pitcher in baseball since June — on the mound with his 1.71 ERA in his career vs. the Bronx Bombers.

There are certainly no more questions, folks. Tito plays chess while the rest of us are playing checkers.

"You know what, I kind of live by you do what you think is right, and you answer the questions, and then in the morning I don't run to see how I'm being perceived," Francona said. "You have to have the confidence of what you're doing. And it's not always going to work. We can't win every game.

"But I was completely comfortable with our decision to do what we did for a number of reasons," he added. "Now, it's awful nice when Trevor goes out and pitches like he does, but I wouldn't have felt any different if they would have beat him."

The oft-maligned Bauer has been a fringe starter for Cleveland since being acquired as one of the key pieces in the Shin-Soo Choo trade prior to the 2013 season.

Heck, he was being questioned for even being in the starting rotation at one point this season — and it was a fair question to ask. He was 2-4 with a 7.36 ERA after six starts, and even by June, his ERA still was a 6.10 after 12 starts.

However, there has been little question how good Bauer has been since the All-Star break — the same as virtually any Tribe pitcher it seems.

Still, the news he was going to start over Kluber on Thursday certainly jolted the baseball world — which led to widespread criticism of a manager who has won two World Series and turned the Indians into an odds-on favorite with 102 wins this season.

But repeatedly this Indians team has been one the fan base could easily fall in love with, and Thursday was yet another example. It may have been a shock to those outside of the clubhouse — but to the players it again proved to be just another game.

"It wasn't a huge shock or — you know, I had a little bit of experience with it, which made it easier to deal with," Bauer said. "Obviously having the confidence — him (Francona) the confidence in me to start me is big, but like I said earlier, it's just baseball.

"Whenever I pitch, the process is the same," he added. "You come up with a game plan, you talk about it and you get on the same page with everybody — and you go out there and try to execute it and the results are going to be what they are. Tonight was a good night for us."

Thursday's offensive hero, Jay Bruce, was asked what he notices about Bauer, who has a quirky reputation.

"He's very committed to his craft," he said. "He takes a lot of pride in doing the work behind the scenes. I know a lot of people don't get to see that, but the preparation, the focus — Trevor believes in what he's doing, and I think that is one of the things that makes him most successful.

"He is a competitor who wants the ball," he added. "And I'm happy he's on my side."

As the Indians go for the commanding 2-0 lead today behind Kluber — ironically facing off with former Indians Cy Young winner (2007) CC Sabathia — perhaps Yankees manager Joe Girardi summed up Bauer's night best.

"His curveball was really good tonight," Girardi said. "It's as good as we've seen it, and he's been pitching better. We didn't get many free base runners, which we have in the past off of him, and he was really, really good."

A dominant performance by a back-end starter, timely hitting and a 1-0 lead. Thursday truly was 'just another game' for the Tribe.

Francona isn't playing with pawn chess pieces. And we all eagerly await his next move — until the ultimate checkmate awaits.

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