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Terry Francona Appears Set To Go Back To 1966 With His Rotation

October 28, 2016
If he isn't careful, Indians manager Terry Francona might set baseball back 50 years. Not that it would necessarily be a bad thing, at least not in the eyes of some old timers. 

Remember the pitching rotation for the Baltimore Orioles during their historic four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1966 World Series? Who was the fourth starter for the Orioles (or the Dodgers, for that matter)? OK, so that is one of the all-time trick questions, since neither team used one.

The Orioles and Dodgers both navigated that series with only three starting pitchers, and there is every reason to believe Francona might try the same formula with the Indians, who lost two of their top three starting pitchers (Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar) late in the season. 

When Francona confirmed Game 1 starter Corey Kluber would pitch Games 4 and, if necessary, 7, it left open the obvious possibility that Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, the starters for Games 2 and 3, would be brought back on short rest to pitch Games 5 and 6. Only a rainout, which would eliminate the second off-day, would stand in the way of Francona turning back the clock in an effort to give the Indians their first World Series title since 1948 -- and denying the Cubs their first since 1908.

"Short rest," of course, is with three days between starts -- routine a half century ago, but considered borderline pitcher abuse in today's game, despite a significantly lighter workload -- but it definitely seems to be the shortest route to success for the Indians. Two games is admittedly a small sample size, but it would appear Francona has bought into the theory that, in order to win, his team will need at least two wins, and very possibly three, from Kluber.

It may go against the grain of today's standard pitching routine, but with starters pitching fewer innings per game than ever before, the plan that makes the most sense for Francona and the Indians is to go with three starters, especially given 40 percent of the original five were lost to injury late in the season. It's a simple case of less meaning more -- the No. 1 pitcher gets three starts; the No. 4 gets none and is relegated to long relief instead of starting the potentially pivotal fourth game (as John Lackey is scheduled to do for the Cubs).

If Kluber hits a bump in the road along the way, his pitching on "short rest" will undoubtedly put Francona on the hot seat, but the Indians' manager has already given ample evidence he doesn't operate strictly by the "conventional book" (if there is such a thing). His multi-inning use of the Indians' two late-inning relievers is already evidence Francona is willing to buck the trend (though it should be noted, the expanded bullpen roles are only in effect when his team has the lead).

Kluber has a proven track record of steady work as a pitcher who was groomed without the sometimes-severe restrictions on young pitchers. He won the 2014 American League Cy Young Award and is in contention again with a very similar 2016 season.

With starters averaging fewer innings now than at any time in history, it might be time for some of the "forward thinkers" to look to the past for the future. Some of those who pay close attention to financial books realize teams are paying top dollar to starters who pitch less, thereby creating higher profiles (and salaries) for those who pitch the last three innings.

It is an economic problem baseball hasn't been able to solve. If Francona and the Indians can somehow win a World Series with three starters working on three days of rest, who knows? It is, after all, very much a copycat industry.

But whom are we kidding? The only time baseball turns back the clock is to bring back some of those strange looking uniforms.

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It's hard to imagine Cubs starter Jon Lester has been as successful as he has despite his terrible phobia -- a fear of throwing to first base. But you can be sure, now that it has been so completely exposed, teams are going to go to every bunting and running extreme to expose him. 

For a left-handed pitcher not to be able to execute a simple toss to first base, not to mention a legitimate pickoff attempt, should be inexcusable in the major leagues. There have been cases in the past (Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch) of infielders that have developed the same phobia (often referred to as "the yips"), but it is almost unheard of for a pitcher (Steve Blass' inexplicable loss of control throwing to home plate notwithstanding).

Unless he can find a way to kick the habit, it wouldn't be surprising if Lester ultimately resorted to hypnosis in an effort to curb his wayward ways.

***  

I'm not sure what's going on with Wilson Contreras and the Cubs' pitching staff, but I think somebody needs to remind the 24-year-old catcher the guy holding the ball controls the game.

Contreras made so many visits to the pitching mound during the Cubs' 5-1 win in Game 2, you could almost hear commissioner Rob Manfred screaming for a limit to the number of times a catcher can leave home plate. Manfred has shown some indications he's not against tinkering with strategy in an effort to shorten the average time of a game, so I'm sure Contreras got the commish's attention while he was having trouble getting on the same page with his pitchers.

Red Sox great Carlton Fisk, with mask on top of his head, earned the nickname "human rain delay" (along with Mike Hargrove) for his frequent visits to chat up his pitchers, but Contreras took it to another level the other night. He went out for a visit every time the pitcher shook off his sign, which was often. Somebody needs to remind the youngster when a pitcher shakes his head, it's not personal -- it just means you have to change the number of fingers.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com