By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — The Indians are very familiar with the postseason hole they’re currently stuck in. They saw one just like it last October — from above.
At least they know it can be scaled.
But Cleveland’s climb in this AL Division Series seems much steeper than just the 2-0 deficit they’re facing after dropping the first two games in Houston. The defending World Series champion Astros have shown their exceptional pitching and extraordinary depth while outplaying the swing-and-miss Indians in every facet of the game.
“They’ve played pretty much perfect baseball to this point,” Indians third baseman Josh Donaldson said following Saturday’s 3-1 loss. “We have had a couple mistakes the first couple games, and now, it’s our time to respond.”
Or another Cleveland baseball season will end before the leaves change colors.
Houston’s in complete control heading into Monday’s Game 3.
Astros aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole dominated Cleveland’s hitters in Games 1 and 2 as Houston’s pitchers combined on consecutive three-hitters. The Astros piled up 24 strikeouts against one of the league’s most balanced lineups, which is batting a combined .100 in this ALDS. The Indians’ offense was so anemic Saturday that they didn’t have a single at-bat with a runner in scoring position.
If not for Francisco Lindor’s solo homer, Cleveland would have been blanked.
The Indians returned to Progressive Field on Sunday for an optional workout, and Cleveland’s players seemed relaxed despite their perilous postseason predicament.
“We’re OK,” manager Terry Francona said. “I’d rather be up 2-0 than down 2-0. But it’s still the first one to get to three. And I’d rather have a chance than no chance. I mean, I understand that the odds start to go not in your favor. But been on both sides of this, and come back and had people come back on us.
“So rather than spend a ton of time thinking about all that, we need to figure out a way to beat them, because the first two games, they’ve really kind of had their way with us. We need to change that.”
Francona will tweak his lineup for Game 3. With left-hander Dallas Keuchel starting for Houston, Francona will add two right-handed hitters: right fielder Brandon Guyer and Yandy Diaz, who will replace Edwin Encarnacion as the DH. Encarnacion will move to first base, replacing Yonder Alonso.
As bleak as things appear for the three-time AL Central champions, who will give Mike Clevinger his first postseason start with the season on the line, only have to look back to last October for inspiration. As painful as that might be.
The Indians jumped out to what appeared to be a commanding 2-0 lead in the ALDS before New York stormed back and won three straight to advance, denying Cleveland a return trip to the World Series and extending the club’s title drought to 70 years.
The Yankees paved the comeback trail. It’s up to the Indians to follow it.
“It might be a little unfortunate that we know it can be done,” said usually reliable reliever Andrew Miller, who replaced starter Carlos Carrasco in the sixth inning and gave up Marwin Gonzalez’s go-ahead, two-run double in Game 2. “We certainly have a day to regroup. That’s how I’m looking at it. I have a day to regroup, and then, I’ll be in. Ready to succeed in the same spot. We aren’t giving up just yet.”
History isn’t on Cleveland’s side, either. Of the teams to take a 2-0 lead at home in 2-2-1 format, 24 of 27 have gone on to win the series.
The Astros, though, are Cleveland’s biggest problem.
Despite trailing 1-0 in Game 2 and having little success against Carrasco, Houston put together a rally that began innocently with star second baseman Jose Altuve reaching on an infield dribbler after he nearly fell on his face trying to exit the batter’s box. Carrasco then walked Alex Bregman before getting Yuli Gurriel on a fly to left.
That’s when Terry Francona turned to Miller, an October supernova two years ago when he nearly carried Cleveland to a World Series title. But the left-hander’s second pitch was pounded into the right-field corner, where Melky Cabrera struggled to corral it as Altuve scored easily and Bregman slid home just ahead of a relay throw.
The Astros’ lead was just 2-1, but with Cleveland’s bats dormant, it felt like 12-1.
Francona didn’t second-guess his decision to bring in Miller, but the left-hander’s struggles this season might make him re-consider using him again. Cleveland has no margin for error, and Francona, who guided Boston to a 3-0 comeback in the 2004 ALCS, knows the Astros have few flaws.
“Part of why they’re good is, obviously, their pitching, but they always push,” he said. “They continue to push. And they put heat on you all the time. They’ve got a very good ball club, and part of — like we’ve been talking about it since the day before the series — they continue to push, and they either run you in the mistake or hit the ball out of the ballpark. They have a lot of ways to beat you.”
The Astros would have every reason to feel confident, but they’re not looking past the Indians.
“With the lineup that they have over there, the staff that they have, a lot can happen and a lot can happen quick,” Astros leadoff man George Springer said. “We saw it before when New York was down two and they came back on us there and won all three in New York and all that stuff. So it’s never over till it is. But for us, it’s just go out, play our game, and just stay in our dugout.”
By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer