Spin Forward: 'Pen depth vital in ALCS
Both clubs' starters putting pressure on relievers to succeed
BOSTON -- Curt Schilling didn't hesitate to admit it. He felt like he had a chance to finish off the Indians in the fourth inning.
The Red Sox had just scored three runs on a shaky Fausto Carmona, looking much the same as Boston's patient hitters made C.C. Sabathia look a night earlier. A quick 1-2-3 inning and they'd be back up.
"I think we would have won the game [if] I go out there and put up a zero," Schilling said. "I'm not taking anything away from them, because they won this game."
Once Jhonny Peralta's three-run homer off Schilling put Cleveland ahead, it was on its way to winning Game 2. And as the Indians headed home, they could take away the fact that they have a lot more fight left in them in this American League Championship Series, and a lot more bullpen depth than folks give them credit for.
With the Indians' rotation now turning to Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd for Games 3 and 4, respectively, and no signs thus far that their starters can go deep into a game against the Red Sox's imposing lineup, that bullpen depth could be the biggest revelation in Cleveland since they discovered that bug spray doesn't work against all flying insects.
When the Tigers won the AL pennant last year, Jim Leyland discussed the difference between a manager using his relievers because he wanted to or because he had to. By the middle innings Saturday night, neither Indians manager Eric Wedge nor Red Sox skipper Terry Francona had a whole lot of choice in the matter.
At least on the Indians' side, they were trying to map out a game plan as they went deeper and deeper into the New England night. But this game showed the best-laid plans don't always work.
"Eric asked me when we had to lift [Rafael] Perez for [Jensen] Lewis, 'Are we going to be able to piece it together?'" Tribe pitching coach Carl Willis said. "I sat with my [lineup] card and went through it, and I really felt if Lewis could get us through the sixth, that we could go to [Rafael] Betancourt in the seventh and eighth and hopefully, keeping my fingers crossed, we would have a lead to go to [closer Joe] Borowski in the ninth.
"It didn't quite work that way. We went to Raffy to get the last out in the seventh. Hey, sometimes you have to push your guys, but we're never going to push them to the point of risk. They just were tremendous tonight."
They pushed Betancourt, who hadn't pitched longer than two innings all season, and he retired seven of the eight batters he faced. He sat down and got up two different times while the Indians batted in the eighth and ninth. But as Willis explained his confidence, he recalled his lasting impression from the Indians' celebration the day they clinched the AL Central title.
After the celebration just began to level out, Willis went into the training room to make a phone call. There, he saw Betancourt doing his shoulder exercises, keeping his arm ready for the next appearance.
Between 2 1/3 innings each from Betancourt and Lewis, the Indians essentially topped what the Red Sox got out of their two best relievers, Hideki Okajima and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Not only did Tom Mastny set up the Indians' rally with a scoreless 10th after pitching two innings the previous night, he could've gone another inning if his team hadn't taken the lead.
"When you're in extra innings, particularly on the road, you're talking about having to get six outs versus their three," Wedge said. "You've really got to push the ballgame and keep them down, and our bullpen did a great job with that."
It was the Indians' answer to the way the Red Sox have worn out their starters, and at least in a subtle way, it changed the outlook of the series.
By contrast, the Red Sox came into the postseason with the lowest bullpen ERA in the league. But that was based in no small part on the fact that their outstanding starters didn't leave them with a lot of innings to cover. Their strength was in their dynamic duo of Okajima and Papelbon, not necessarily their depth. Once Schilling couldn't get through five and Okajima had to enter with one out in the sixth, the depth was about to get tested.
"Fifth inning, you're asking your bullpen to come in and throw zeroes against that team for however long it takes, and that's just not fair to them," Schilling said.
But with Games 3 and 4, it could come up again. Daisuke Matsuzaka will start Monday against the Indians for the third time this year. He threw eight scoreless innings against them at Jacobs Field in July, but he was also roughed up at Fenway earlier in the season. After that, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will make his first start in 2 1/2 weeks.
Momentum, of course, could shift with one reliever's undoing. Yet after a split at Fenway, the Indians can feel better about their chances then they logically should for the performances of their must-win top starters. They've used their relievers because they've had to, but it's an advantage they want to have.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.