CLEVELAND, Ohio — Is it more challenging for a big-league manager to prepare for a best-of-five divisional round playoff series rather than a traditional seven-game league championship or World Series?
“It’s two less than seven, I know that,” Indians manager Terry Francona said Wednesday before his team worked out at Progressive Field.
Francona is preparing to manage in the divisional round for the eighth time since 2004. He is 4-3 in previous LDS appearances, 1-1 with Cleveland. Francona said he recognizes that after every game there is going to be a storyline. Usually they follow a familiar pattern, and if you know what’s coming, you can set yourself up to handle it appropriately.
“The first game everyone is even, and after the first game everybody is like ‘they gotta win this (next) one,'” Francona said. “What you need to do is as a team block out the noise because that’s really what it is, and focus on winning the game that’s right in front of you. When you do that, things have a way of working out.”
Francona has also learned how to manage around the long four-day layoff between the end of the regular season and the divisional round opener.
“The idea is to make (the four days) beneficial,” Francona said. “In our sport, because it’s rhythm and timing, sometimes that can create some anxiety for coaches and managers.”
Francona said he was pleased with the way players acquitted themselves during Tuesday’s intrasquad game at Progressive Field. Each starter got two at-bats and the pitchers that needed work were able to throw appropriately. The scrimmage helped break up the off days in a way that allowed players to maintain their rhythm and timing.
“In football, you give guys rest and man they can run over the middle and block and that’s not what our sport is,” Francona said. “It’s more rhythm and timing, and having the reps is so important.”
Guyer back to good: Outfielder Brandon Guyer should be good to go when Friday’s playoff opener arrives at Minute Maid Park. He’s been dealing with a sore shoulder that caused him to miss the final three regular season games at Kansas City.
Guyer appeared in the intrasquad game on Tuesday, laying down a bunt in the second inning against Cody Allen. He took batting practice with the Indians on Wednesday under Francona’s watchful eye.
“I think he’s going to be fine,” Francona said.
Bullpen strategy under wraps: Francona was asked whether or not he has any tricks up his sleeve when it comes to his bullpen. The skipper joked that he could reveal his plans, but “I’d have to kill ya.”
In 2016, Francona sparked a “bullpenning” trend in baseball when he used Andrew Miller much earlier in playoff games than he had during the regular season. Looking back on the strategy, Francona said he was just trying to do what he thought would put his team in the best position to win.
“Sometimes you don’t even know that,” he said. “Like with Andrew, so many times we’ll bring him into the game and if he has an easy inning, we leave him in the game. It’s not like there’s a design. If he comes in and throws eight pitches, why take him out?”
Part of the strategy is to make sure you’ve done your homework. Francona said the Indians always try to have a plan in place ahead of time, and that starts by having good meetings between the coaching staff and the scouts.
“While we were out playing, we had a lot of scouts and and a lot of guys upstairs attacking different things on the Astros,” Francona said. “It makes you feel good to know that they’ve been doing that. Then we had two pretty lengthy meetings Monday and Tuesday and it helps alleviate some of the anxiety because you feel like you’re prepared. Our guys did a really good job.”
Firsthand account: Josh Donaldson has seen firsthand what Francona’s bullpen strategy can do to a team in the playoffs. He went 1-for-5 with a single and two strikeouts against Miller and Allen in the 2016 ALCS with Toronto.
Donaldson said confidence is the key for any reliever in the postseason.
“I know what they’re capable of doing and I know how dominant they can be,” Donaldson said. “Going into this postseason on a note that they felt comfortable with is important. But guess what, when that first game starts, all the stats get thrown out. It doesn’t matter anymore.
“So it doesn’t matter if you feel like you had a good year, felt like you had a bad year, you get a chance to go out and take advantage of an opportunity that not a lot of teams have. Now it’s up to each individual to take care of their own business.”
Bieber believer: Could rookie right-hander Shane Beiber be the ace up Francona’s sleeve in the bullpen?
Bieber, who will be available in both games in Houston, pitched his way to an 11-5 record and a 4.55 ERA in 19 starts. He struck out 118 and walked just 23 in 114 2/3 innings and has exactly the kind of makeup that could play well as a long reliever.
“The way he’s competed, he’s earned our trust,” Francona said. “It gets exciting when you start thinking about his future, but as far as winning a playoff game, believe me, we wouldn’t have put him on (the roster) if we didn’t think he was going to help us.”
Awards season: Major League Baseball announced the 30 finalists (one from each team) for the Hank Aaron Award, which recognizes the most outstanding offensive performer in each league. Infielder Jose Ramirez is the Indians’ nominee.
Ramirez, named to his second AL All-Star Team this season, batted .270 with career highs in home runs (39) and RBI (105). He finished third in the AL in fWAR (8.1) and tops in the league in the Baseball Reference Power-Speed # rankings (36.3).
Fans can vote online for the winners in each league. A distinguished panel of ex-major leaguers led by Aaron will combine with the fan vote.
Finally: Former Indians farmhand Tony Wolters sent Colorado into the National League Division Series against Milwaukee with an RBI single in the 13th inning of the NL Wild Card game against the Cubs.
Francona was asked if he was happy to see the ex-Akron Rubberducks infielder come through for Bud Black’s Rockies in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday.
“I fell asleep, so I found out this morning,” Francona said. “That was pretty cool.”