NEW YORK – Andrew Miller had faced 75 left-handed hitters in 2017, including four in the American League Division Series, before Greg Bird came to the plate against him leading off the seventh inning in Game 3 on Sunday night.
Only one of the 75, Dodgers rookie slugger Cody Bellinger on June 13, had taken Miller deep. In 18 career postseason appearances, Miller had never allowed a home run to a lefty batter.
Miller started Bird with a pair of sliders, the first off the plate outside, the second on the inside corner to draw a foul ball. When the Cleveland southpaw released his third pitch, a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, he did not have an inkling that it would wind up 396 feet away in the second deck in right field – a moonshot that provided the only run of the night as the Yankees staved off elimination.
“I knew when it hit his bat, it was trouble,” Miller said. “When it left my hand, I thought I had a good thought process behind what I was trying to do, and my game isn’t trying to be too fine. I felt like the ball came out of my hand good. It had good velocity. It just – it could certainly have been a better pitch, but what I was trying to do was just wrong in that situation, and I paid dearly for it.”
Bird hit three of his nine home runs this season against lefties in only 28 at-bats, so it’s not crazy that he would join the list of lefty hitters to homer off Miller since the start of 2015, along with Bellinger, Carlos Gonzalez, Rougned Odor, and Joe Mauer. Still, it’s jarring to see Miller, previously scored upon in only two of those 18 career postseason appearances, fail on the big stage.
At least, it should be jarring. Cleveland, still with two more chances to close out the series and return to the ALCS, took it in stride.
“He’s human,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “Those things are gonna happen. He limits those extremely well. He’s a very good pitcher, he has great outings, and he has helped us win a lot this year and last year. When we lose a game like that, it’s part of the game. We understand that it’s going to happen, bounce back tomorrow, and try to win it.”
This is what makes Cleveland a special team. It’s easy to remember teams that fell apart in the playoffs after big letdowns from their best relievers: Atlanta in 1996, the Yankees in 2004, the Mets in 2015, any number of Tigers vintages… but there wasn’t even a hint that the defending American League champions were rattled after a game in which they could not touch Masahiro Tanaka for seven innings before David Roberston and Aroldis Chapman completed the five-hitter.
Miller will be available to make a fourth straight appearance if called upon in Game 4, and Terry Francona joked that after throwing only nine pitches in Game 3, Miller “might pitch forever tomorrow.”
Lindor was able to smile when talking about it. Even Miller, annoyed at his own failure, wasn’t about to really get down.
“I feel good about the way I’m throwing the ball,” Miller said. “I feel like I’m getting stronger and better. I just made a mistake tonight.”
There may be a question to be raised about Miller getting stronger and better when he has struck out only three of the 12 batters to face him in three appearances in the series, compared to seven of 16 in last year’s ALDS.
Also in play is the question of the Yankees getting more familiar with facing their former teammate. Bird had been one of the strikeout victims, when he faced Miller in Game 1. In Game 2, the New York first baseman got his bat on the ball and lined out. In Game 3, he hit the winning home run.
“I’ve never faced him until this series,” Bird said. “I’ve seen it on our side and seen how good he is… I’m looking for the ball and going off my instincts. Really, that’s it, going off my instincts. Putting myself in a position where I want to be and just kind of reaching from there, really… I saw it and swung.”
Now the series has swung. Cleveland won’t hesitate to go to Miller again, nor should there be any hesitation to do so. While Miller will have every bit of confidence in himself after “one mistake,” the Yankees also have to have a little more confidence facing him, because they now know that what Lindor said is true: He’s human.