Covering the Bases: ALDS Game 1
FIRST: Mike Napoli has been to the World Series. Twice. The veteran first baseman has a long history of playoff experience. Playing in front of packed houses with a season on the line is nothing new for Nap, but he couldn’t help but smile when asked about Thursday night.
“It was just a cool atmosphere,” Napoli said. “I’ve been fortunate to do it a long time, and it just doesn’t get old. The anxiety gets more and more every time. It was just a great team win and there were a lot of things that we did that probably went unseen.”
Let’s start there.
On the October stage, you never know who will emerge as a hero. I mean, consider the National League Wild Card Game one night earlier. OK, we all figured Madison Bumgarner would post, but Conor Gillaspie? In fact, those were the two of the first words I heard upon arriving to the stadium on Thursday afternoon. A veteran reporter turned and exclaimed: “Conor Gillaspie?!”
On Friday morning, there will probably be some Red Sox fans uttering a similar question.
Terry Francona’s bullpen management stole the show in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, but Perez was tied into every facet of this win for Cleveland, which hadn’t won a playoff game since Game 4 of the 2007 AL Championship Series. From the first to the ninth, Perez made an impact.
Perez’s contribution in the fifth inning, for example, was subtle, but critical.
“I think that was the biggest one,” Napoli said.
Perez led off the inning with a single to the left-field wall. It left his bat at 111 mph, marking the hardest ball he’s ever hit in the Statcast Era. That wasn’t even the most impressive part. Carlos Santana followed with a flyout to left, and Perez tagged up and moved up to second base. The throw from Andrew Benintendi was off line, though it looked like Perez caught him by surprise.
“The ball kept carrying,” Perez said. “I’m known as a slow runner. The guy hesitated. He was probably too confident that I wouldn’t try to run. That was a huge play.”
It was huge, because Jason Kipnis then delivered a single to center, allowing Perez to score from second base. That gave Cleveland a 5-3 lead and that little extra insurance — ignited by Perez’s sprint from first to second — proved paramount. Boston scored once more in the eighth, but that run via Perez and Kipnis held up as the game’s decisive blow.
SECOND: Perez also delivered at the plate, getting a three-run rally started in a third inning that had the stadium shaking.
Rick Porcello — the Cy Young candidate with the 0.93 HR/9 rate — locked horns with Perez for seven pitches to open the inning. The at-bat ended with a four-seamer over the middle, and Perez thanked Porcello with an opposite field blast that pulled the game into a 2-2 deadlock.
With that shot, Perez became the first player in Indians history to hit a home run in his first career postseason plate appearance. This is the same Perez that hit a whopping .183 in an injury-marred season for Cleveland.
“Early in the year, I kind of struggled,” Perez said. “But, later in the year, at the end of the season, I was really feeling [like] myself. I was getting more comfortable at the plate. Tonight, I put the ball in play, trying to have good ABs and good things will happen. That was the key.”
The Indians were hardly done in the third, though.
Two batters after Perez had the park rocking, Kipnis sent a towering shot to deep center field. The Tribe’s second baseman walked out of the box, admiring his work for a moment before trotting. Two pitches later, Francisco Lindor pulled a Porcello pitch out to right. Now, the place was in an all-out frenzy.
“After the first one, it was exciting,” Kipnis said. “After mine, it was even kind of getting nuts in there. And the third one, our dugout was kind of losing it. We played with a lot of energy. We played with a lot of emotion. That’s the way our team goes.”
THIRD: We might as well keep “Covering the Bases: Roberto Perez Addition” going, too.
On the October stage, a play in the first inning may in fact loom large when the smoke finally settles. That was indeed the case in Thursday’s first, when Dustin Pedroia opened with a double and Brock Holt followed with a single to put runners on the corners with no outs.
Trevor Bauer bounced back with a strikeout of Mookie Betts before getting Big Papi to pop out into foul ground down the first-base line. Cleveland’s starter was one pitch from an escape, but Hanley Ramirez didn’t play along. He roped a pitch into the left-center gap, where rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin cut off the bouncer and swiftly fired it to Lindor.
“It was huge how Naquin got the ball to me as quick as he did,” Lindor said.
Lindor then made a great one-hop throw to the plate, where Perez gloved it and made a sweep tag on Holt, who tried to score from first. As Holt slid in headfirst, Perez nicked the runner on his leg with his glove. Umpire Brian Knight initially called Holt safe, but the ruling was overturned after a replay review.
“I got a good jump and just couldn’t make it there in time,” Holt said. “They did a good job of cutting that run down. … I had a pretty good lane to slide around there. Just a bang-bang play. I got in and touched the plate, but he tagged my leg or my foot. It was a good play by him.”
HOME: There was, of course, the bullpen’s performance. Francona handed the ball to Andrew Miller in the fifth inning and asked him, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen to cover the game’s fine 13 outs with little margin for error. They got the job done, becoming the storyline of the night, especially in the wake of The Showalter Game.
There was even less wiggle room for Allen, who took over with one out in the eighth and the Tribe clinging to a 5-4 lead. The close features a knuckle-curve that he often bounces in the dirt. Twice, Allen worked with a runner on base (David Ortiz made it to third in the eighth), but Perez kept the dirt balls from costing Cleveland.
“Roberto did an unbelievable job,” Allen said. “I probably bounced 17 breaking balls with guys on base and he swallowed them all up. Hats off to him. He had an unbelievable game.”
In the ninth, not only did Allen corral a bouncer from Allen, but the catcher chased down Sandy Leon after the third-strike swing and tagged him out up the first-base line for the second out. Allen went on to strike out the side, with the final blow being a failed check swing from Pedroia on a 3-2 knuckler in the dirt. Perez fired the ball to Napoli at first, getting the out and sealing the win.
“He had a great game,” Lindor said of Perez. “Tito trusts in him. I’m proud of him.”
Stay tuned for more…