Tribe's staff coming up aces
Contributions from Byrd, Westbrook have Indians in command
CLEVELAND -- What in the name of Rapid Robert Feller is going on around here?
The Cleveland Indians are winning the American League Championship Series with superior pitching, which is the time-honored postseason way of doing things. But the pitchers who have had the biggest impact on this series for the Tribe, and against the Boston Red Sox, occupy the bottom half of Cleveland's rotation.
If you had said five days ago that C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona would be roughed up in Games 1 and 2, and that the Indians would still win three out of the first four games, people would have said that your thought process had been invaded by a plague of Lake Erie midges.
But in Game 3 you saw Jake Westbrook reduce the Red Sox lineup to a bunch of ground-ball hitters, and then in Game 4 on Tuesday night Paul Byrd allowed the Boston hitters nothing of notice until his own guys were able to explode for seven runs in the fifth inning. The Indians had no problem hanging on for a 7-3 victory.
For the second straight night another Cleveland starter clearly not involved in the race for the Cy Young Award pitched like a postseason ace. And the result is that the Indians find themselves leading the ALCS, 3-1. They are on the brink of the World Series. And if their rotation is actually this deep, performing this well under this much pressure, why not?
It is true that Byrd gave up back-to-back homers to Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz to begin the sixth and then departed in favor of rookie reliever Jensen Lewis. But Byrd had done his job and then some. His work continued a run of strong Cleveland pitching that actually began in the middle of the Game 2 marathon, with six shutout innings from the bullpen.
This was Byrd's second victory of the postseason for the Indians, the first being the clincher in the Division Series against the Yankees. At this point there is no way of overstating his contribution.
"Byrdie, this is the second time he's stepped up and did exactly what we needed him to do," said third baseman Casey Blake, whose fifth-inning homer started the scoring splurge. "He's probably, at least in my eyes, he's the MVP of our team right now just because when we needed a big ballgame out of somebody, he stepped up. And Jake last night, too. But Byrdie is kind of the unsung hero here."
Ironically, there was some question, from well outside the Indians clubhouse, about whether Byrd should have even had the start in Game 4 of the Division Series, rather than bringing back the ace of the staff, Sabathia, to close out the Yankees. But manager Eric Wedge stayed with Byrd. This decision turned out to both the decent and the right thing to do.
Byrd won the game, the Indians won the Division Series, and Wedge won Byrd's lifetime gratitude for his loyalty.
"I just think about him going with me in the first series. I mean, he didn't have to do that," Byrd said. "I think the whole world wanted C.C. out on the mound, everybody except for my mom, Eric Wedge and my wife. So the fact that he went with me, it made me feel really good.
"I can sit there and get angry and say: 'I don't get any respect and I want to prove everybody wrong.' That's really not me. I'd rather be focused on proving a few people right, and he was one of them.
"I've always appreciated Eric's loyalty. Even after some rough starts that I've had here in Cleveland, he has always had my back."
For Wedge, the loyalty had been earned. "I've got a tremendous amount of confidence in Paul Byrd and all of our players," the manager said. "I think it starts right there.
"There's going to be points in time over the course of the season where you're going to have to make some tough decisions, but Paul Byrd has been tremendous for us all year long and is one of the big reasons we're here."
And he is now one of the big reasons that the Indians are one victory away from the World Series. He neutralized one of the best lineups in the game, working both sides of the plate with precise command, changing speeds, a man in charge of his craft.
"I had a good fastball, I hit 90 miles an hour, which happens a couple of times a year," Byrd said with a smile. "I high-fived a couple of guys in the dugout and said, 'Hey, pick me up here, I just hit 90.'
"You know, I went out there and my goal going in was to move the ball in and out. I think sometimes these guys can scare people and you shy away from pitching the ball in, thinking they're going to hit another home run. So that was my goal going in, to move the ball in and out."
If Sabathia and Carmona did not perform up to expectations in their first starts of this series, the rest of the Indians staff has been more than anybody outside the immediate Indians family could have expected. In the last 24 innings, since the sixth inning of Game 2, the Red Sox have scored just five runs.
Each pitcher Wedge has given the ball to has responded with the kind of work the situation demanded. Special mention ought to be made of Rafael Betancourt, who continues to put up two-inning shutout performances with the regularity and precision of a classic Swiss watch. But everybody has chipped in; it has been a staff-wide effort.
"I feel like we've been doing a better job of controlling the baseball game in regard to our pitching," Wedge said. "I think that it starts right there. It always has and always will in regard to working ahead, making pitches when you have to, getting big outs, finishing hitters off, finishing innings off."
That kind of pitching prowess is the story of postseason success. It is the story of how the Cleveland Indians have advanced to within one game of the World Series. It is just that the names of some of the most successful pitchers have been rearranged. All credit to Paul Byrd and Jake Westbrook, not to mention the entire Cleveland bullpen. They have defied the conventional script for this series and written their own version, a better one.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.