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#GoldNuggets: The Borrowed Bat

   10-30-2016
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The Trivia:  My parents, who both went to Dartmouth, were a huge influence on me while growing up in the Atlanta suburbs and taught me the importance of hard work, discipline and having fun. I turned down a baseball scholarship to UCLA to pursue a professional career when my hometown Braves selected me with the 14th overall selection in the 2007 draft. Even though I’m still only 27, I’ve already been to the postseason five times in my career, but this is the first time I’ve reached the World Series. Who am I?

The Borrowed Bat

A back story about the Indians’ success in 2016 that makes it more amazing is that they’d been doing it without the bat of Michael Brantley, a former All-Star and Silver Slugger winner who has been out of the lineup since May with an injured shoulder. That’s no longer the case. Pitcher Corey Kluber used Brantley’s bat to fend off John Lackey for eight pitches and dribble a single down the third base side to drive in Lonnie Chisenhall and put the Indians ahead 2-1 in Game 4 on Saturday night. Of his decision to use Brantley’s bat, Kluber said that since his hard-hitting but injured teammate had only 43 plate appearances this season, "I figured it's got a lot of hits left in it." The athletic Kluber was determined not to give away his at-bat against Lackey even though he’d been to the plate just six times during the regular season himself. He got mostly fastballs from Lackey before beating out the swinging bunt on a 3-and-2 pitch. Like the rest of his teammates, second baseman Jason Kipnis, who would later hit a three-run homer to make it 7-1, was in awe but not totally surprised by Kluber’s approach. "For a guy who literally gets four at-bats, if that, he actually has a professional approach. He gets a World Series at-bat after battling and spitting on pitches, not just hacking,” he said.  “We knew that at-bat can really change the tone of the game. For us to get an RBI off of that, that gave us the lead. You know that’s not going to sit well with their pitcher on that side because you’re assuming the other guy’s going to be an out, but he actually battled in that at-bat, and that loosens up a team. When your pitcher is battling like that, your hitters step up and say, ‘Hey, we can’t let Kluber show us up at the plate. We’ve got to step up too.’” It was a lead they wouldn’t surrender mostly because Kluber, pitching on short rest, was almost as dominating as he had been in Game 1. The Cubs managed five hits and an earned run off the right-hander in six innings. Six of Kluber’s 15 outs came on strike outs and he allowed just one walk against the struggling Cubs hitters, who took a decidedly more aggressive approach against the Players Choice Award finalist for AL Outstanding Pitcher, swinging at 59 percent of his pitches (the second highest rate against him this season) compared to 40 pct. (the second-lowest) in Game 1. “Kluber’s outstanding,” Kipnis said. “You’ve got to give him his credit. That guy needs to be a household name with how good he is.”

The (Near) Invincible Reliever

Game 4 will be remembered as the game we found out Andrew Miller is not quite invincible, just darn near it. He set a postseason record for strikeouts by a reliever with 29 when he got Ben Zobrist on five pitches to end the eighth, but the Cubs hitters also finally scored a run off Miller when Dexter Fowler hit a pitch that Miller left over the plate into the left field bleachers.  A 6-foot-7 left-hander who delivers his slider from different planes and with the wide wingspan his height allows him, Miller had held hitters scoreless for 24.1 innings this postseason, the second-longest streak by a reliever, before the home run. The 31-year-old Floridian, who now has an 0.36 ERA over 25.2 innings, didn’t think twice when manager Terry Francona still called on him for two innings despite a 7-1 lead. "I think at this point we know the games are important," he said. "We have a lot of confidence in the other guys. I feel like I went out there with a lot of confidence and was throwing strikes and filling up the strike zone. I wasn't shocked I had another inning."

 

The Optimists

You don’t put together the best season of your young career and lead your team to a Major League-leading 103 victories and go down without a fight, so third baseman Kris Bryant, who has battled pitchers working around him and struggled in the field, was not giving up on this World Series. The Cubs faced a 3-1 deficit as they prepared for Game 5 at Wrigley Field, but they were facing a pitcher they had been able to hit, and they had their own ace, Jon Lester, pitching. So the 24-year-old Bryant, who hit 39 home runs and led the NL with a 7.7 WAR this season and is already one of the game’s elite players, wasn’t entertaining a lot of pessimism as he stood in front of his locker surrounded by a sea of media members, after the Cubs’ 7-2 loss in Game 4. “It’s a seven-game series and we’ve played four. We’re not out until we’re out,” said Bryant, who is 1-fo-14 in the series and made two errors on Saturday night. Still there was no reason for Bryant to believe that he and his teammates wouldn’t snap out of their slump beginning with Game 5, especially now that the Cubs hitters had seen the Indians pitchers enough to make adjustments. “I feel like any time you see an American League team, it’s going to take a while to adjust to them and establish that history,” he offered. “But I don’t know, they got some really good pitchers over there, some tough at-bats for us. But seeing their bullpen and getting used to it, hopefully we can use that to our advantage.” Bryant, who is a finalist for the Players Choice Award as the NL’s Outstanding Player, said Dexter Fowler’s home run off Andrew Miller, the first time the Cubs have been able to score against him, was a good example. "Anytime you see someone over the course of a couple days is good,” said. “I thought our at-bats off him were better. Obviously, we gave him an ERA. He's human now."

The Answer:  Jason Heyward