TORONTO (AP) — Before the Cleveland Indians could even consider giving the ball to Andrew Miller, their bullpen faced a daunting task in the very first inning.
After Trevor Bauer’s bloody exit, these remarkable relievers had to stitch together almost an entire game’s worth of outs and innings against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Four outs apiece for Dan Otero and Jeff Manship. Three for Zach McAllister. Five each for winner Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen.
After all that, Cleveland finally turned to Miller, who was overpowering again in closing out a 4-2 victory that moved the Indians within one win of their first pennant since 1997.
“If anybody has a hiccup, we probably lose,” manager Terry Francona said Monday night after his team took a 3-0 lead in the AL Championship Series. “They all made pitches against some really good hitters.”
Jason Kipnis and Mike Napoli homered for the Indians, unbeaten in six playoff games this year. They can complete their second consecutive sweep on Tuesday.
With the bullpen’s most impressive feat yet this October, six relievers combined for 25 outs and 128 pitches while limiting Toronto to two runs and seven hits. Miller got four outs for the save.
“The bullpen was unbelievable,” Bauer said. “Co-MVP to everybody.”
Indians ace Corey Kluber is scheduled to start Game 4 on short rest after Bauer’s drone-related finger injury created more upheaval in a rotation that’s been short-handed all postseason. Bauer faced four batters before getting pulled when his stitched-up right pinkie began dripping blood.
Enter those stingy relievers, who pitched the Indians to a Division Series sweep over Boston and have them on the verge of another. Cleveland is one win from its sixth World Series appearance.
The hard-hitting Blue Jays have mustered only three runs in the series and have never led.
“We felt like we had an opportunity with some of their lower-leverage guys coming out of the bullpen, but they’ve got good arms,” Toronto outfielder Kevin Pillar said. “It makes it tough when you’re facing a different guy every inning, every at-bat.”
Kipnis led off the sixth with a home run to right-center field for a 3-2 edge, and Jose Ramirez added an RBI single. Suddenly, the Indians were just a few outs from being able to turn the game over to Allen and Miller.
They appeared in that order, yet another instance in which Francona maneuvered his bullpen unencumbered by rigid roles.
“It was all hands on deck,” Miller said.
Allen, who usually closes, entered in the seventh with a runner on and nobody out. A two-out walk to Jose Bautista put the potential tying run on, but Josh Donaldson’s liner to left field stayed up long enough for Coco Crisp to make a sliding catch .
Miller fanned three of five batters, giving him 20 strikeouts in nine playoff innings this year. He’s allowed five hits over 17 1/3 scoreless innings in his postseason career.
“Tito did a masterful job running that bullpen today,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “They shut us down.”
Cleveland has won nine straight dating to the regular season.
Napoli entered 2 for 18 this postseason and in an 0-for-25 slump against right-handers dating to the regular season. He opened the scoring with an RBI double off righty Marcus Stroman in the first — Napoli’s long fly popped out of Bautista’s glove before both the ball and Bautista bounced off the right-field wall.
Bauer made it through only 21 pitches. He’d been pushed back two days to Game 3 after cutting his finger last week repairing one of the drones he enjoys flying as a hobby. He received stitches and tried to pitch, but couldn’t make it far without blood dripping from his hand.
“Trevor got a little leak,” Kipnis said. “A couple of us had seen the wound kind of inside and knew it was a possibility of happening. He can deal with the pain, but it’s getting something like that to close up. It’s hard to do in a short amount of time.”
It’s yet another injury problem for a Cleveland team that couldn’t include ailing starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar on its ALCS roster.
Even with the Indians up 3-0, their rotation for the rest of this series isn’t a sure thing. Kluber is set to come back for Game 4 (and presumably a potential Game 7) on short rest, and lightly used rookie Ryan Merritt is lined up for Game 5.
Michael Saunders homered early for Toronto. Ezequiel Carrera tripled leading off the fifth and scored on Ryan Goins’ grounder to tie it 2-all.
Kipnis answered with a home run, his first hit of the series.
Stroman took the loss after allowing four runs in 5 1/3 innings.
“We’ve still got one more to get there, and it’s going to be tough,” Kipnis said. “We know these guys. Just kind of like the Boston series — we don’t want to wait around for them to figure it out. We want to get to them now.”
Francona was Curt Schilling’s manager with Boston during the famous bloody-sock game against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
Francona said Salazar (forearm) was progressing well after throwing to hitters Sunday night.
Miller has struck out 20 of 33 batters in these playoffs and 30 of 60 in his postseason career.
Cleveland relievers have pitched at least 7 1/3 innings five times since Aug. 18, with the Indians winning four of those games.
Kluber has never started on three days’ rest in his major league career, but Francona said before Monday’s game that was the plan for Game 4 if Bauer had problems with his finger. Toronto will start AL ERA leader Aaron Sanchez, who allowed six runs in 5 2/3 innings against Texas in Game 3 of the ALDS.
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister