Oh, what a relief it is: Francona’s use of reliever Miller should be the norm in baseball

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Curve’s great 2004 team faced similar situation in playoffs

Baseball has long botched how relief pitchers are used, but Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona will have a chance to show the proper way in the World Series with his outside-the-box thinking.

Lefty Andrew Miller is one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 1.45 ERA and phenomenal 0.772 WHIP this year. He’s been close to untouchable this postseason for the Indians, allowing no runs and just five hits while striking out 21 in 11ª innings.

Francona’s usage of Miller has been masterful, calling upon him in high-leverage situations, a baseball term for the spot in a tight game when the opposing team has the best chance to score.

Here’s a news flash for everyone in baseball: The ninth inning generally is not the highest leverage situation during most games.

Despite that, closers who only pitch the ninth earn bookoos of money, racking up many easy saves after the game was already locked up thanks to a previous reliever getting out of a big jam.

Miller has been called upon much earlier in games this postseason, including the sixth inning, to get through the toughest parts of the opposing lineup. He might as well have been Cy Young to the Toronto Blue Jays, striking out 14 of the 26 batters he faced to earn MVP honors in the American League Championship Series, even though he didn’t earn a single save.

It’s not like Francona invented the idea of using his best pitcher in middle relief, but the manager has received a ton of credit for doing so.

Keeping all this in mind, let me tell you a story about the greatest managerial decision in Altoona Curve history, or in this case, one that was used against the Curve.

Let’s hop in our DeLorean and head back to 2004, when the Curve’s Brad Eldred had an unbelievable 50 RBIs in the month of August as the team finished off an 85-56 regular season to win a division title.

“We had a great team,” then-Curve manager Tony Beasley said by phone Monday. “We had guys that could swing the bat.”

The Curve destroyed Erie in the first round of the Eastern League playoffs, winning 14-2, then 8-3 in Game 2 and 14-4 in Game 3, for a final series run total of 36-9. Along with Eldred, that fantastic offensive team also included Nate McLouth, Chris Duffy, Ray Sadler and Ronny Paulino.

The Curve faced New Hampshire in the EL Championship Series, and the Fisher Cats were set to start right-hander Brandon League, who threw 100 mph, in Game 2. But manager Mike Basso, now a Pirates scout, had an idea that wound up changing the entire series.

Basso asked the Toronto Blue Jays’ player development folks if he could use League in relief instead of as a starter in the series.

“As much as we could have used Brandon, it just made sense for us,” Basso said by phone a few days ago. “He just pitched so well for us.”

It turned out to be a genius move.

League came on in the sixth inning of Game 1, threw 2ª shutout frames and earned the win. He entered in the seventh in Game 2, threw two shutout innings and mowed down the Curve’s best hitters. In Game 3, he pitched the final 2• innings to earn the save and finish off a 2-0 victory and series sweep.

“League came in every game, and it was lights out,” Beasley, who still vividly recalls the series 12 years later, said. “He was throwing upper 90s with hard sink, and it was tough to deal with.”

“Brandon impacted those games because he was the hottest pitcher in the league at that time, and his stuff was just tremendous,” Basso said.

League was promoted to Toronto after Game 3 and made his MLB debut a few days later.

To this day, Beasley remembers how he knew things would be very difficult facing League as a reliever.

“We had just come off the big series where we blew Erie out of the water, ran right through them,” Beasley said. “I just knew once we played New Hampshire it was going to be a different type of series, one where you’d have to manufacture enough runs and hold on.

League made 41 appearances that season, 10 as a starter, so he was prepared to fill either role and was used to coming on in relief.

“I remember League had been pretty dominant all year,” Beasley said. “We knew as a starter that at some point he would kind of fall apart a little bit, he would lose a little bit of control.

“When they put him in the pen, what I told our guys was that we had to have the lead going into the sixth inning. We had to be ahead, because the way they used their pen, if they were ahead of us after the sixth, it was pretty much a done deal.”

That turned out to be the case, as the dynamite Curve offense failed to score in the final four innings of Game 1, the final three innings of Game 2 and was shut out in the finale.

From this view, Basso’s brilliant move using League out of the bullpen instead of starting him in Game 2 decided that series and prevented the Curve from winning their first EL title. The franchise had to wait six more years to do so.

“Development was basically over for the year at that time, and if you have chance to win a championship, you go for it,” Basso said.

Beasley noted the move with League was “creative,” and also added, “A lot of times in the minor leagues you don’t have the option to do things like that.”

As it turns out, that option usually isn’t available in the major leagues, either.

Managers think alike so much nowadays with how they use their relievers, and most would never consider bringing in their closer in the sixth or seventh inning. (Miller isn’t the Indians’ closer, by the way, but he’s used to that role, saving 36 games for the Yankees last season.)

One interesting component of how Francona is using Miller is the question of whether or not that strategy could work during the regular season. The playoffs are one thing, but having the best reliever be used in random situations for six months could disrupt the usage of the entire bullpen.

Beasley, now third base coach for the Texas Rangers, believes what Francona is doing with Miller could work for a big league team during the regular season.

If, and it’s a big IF …

“The key to the whole thing is if your players buy into that philosophy,” Beasley said.

“If your staff is on board with coming in and pitching that versatile role … if everyone buys into that, there’s no issue whatsoever.”

There is an enormous issue, however, with the glorification of the save stat in baseball, and the amount of money closers can make nowadays.

“Therein lies the problem because that’s where the player is thinking about, I need to get this because of that,” Beasley said. “There’s a reward behind the save at the end of the game.

“The middle guys, from a financial standpoint, there’s a different salary range than that closer, who’s paid to come in and get those last three outs.”

That’s where the whole system is messed up. We put so much emphasis on the final three outs in baseball that it overshadows the fact that the most important three — or more — outs in a game usually occurred earlier.

“What happens in a lot of scenarios is you have a closer who only thinks the closer pitches the ninth inning,” Beasley said. “The ninth inning, you may have 7-8-9 coming up. Whereas in the seventh inning there was 3-4-5. You look at that scenario and think, I need to stop this right now because this game could get out of hand.”

It’s refreshing to see baseball people think creatively, because the entire sport is set up on doing so many things the same way they’ve always been done.

That’s why I’ve long considered what New Hampshire’s manager did against the Curve in 2004 as one of the smartest things I’ve seen in baseball. It was just Double-A, so no one paid it much attention, but it had a major impact on Curve history.

To see Francona do the same type of thing now with Miller, and to be lauded for it, makes me hope his creativity will rub off on other managers and lead to a change of thinking across the game.

But alas, it’s baseball, so it probably won’t — at least not for another 20 or 30 years.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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