The Toronto Blue Jays had the stage set for another magic moment at the Rogers Centre.
Andrew Miller didn’t let it happen.
Dioner Navarro singled off Miller to start the bottom of the ninth and bring the tying run to the plate, but the new King of October struck out Kevin Pillar and Melvin Upton Jr. before getting Darwin Barney to ground out and give the Cleveland Indians a 4-2 win and a 3-0 lead in the ALCS.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “I guess that’s an understatement.”
At this point, failing to score off Miller is hardly a failing, since no one has ever done it in the playoffs. In his 11-game postseason career, he has thrown 17.1 scoreless innings, striking out 30 batters while allowing five hits and three walks.
The problem for the Blue Jays was that they couldn’t take advantage of anyone else in the Cleveland bullpen, and they saw almost everybody. Trevor Bauer’s drone injury turned out to be worse than the Indians let on, and he only got two outs before the pool of blood on the pitching rubber caused him to leave the game.
That meant Terry Francona was going to have to coax 25 outs from a bullpen that has carried Cleveland through the postseason. He needed six relievers to do it, meaning Toronto’s offense had plenty of chances against relief pitchers that weren’t named Cody Allen or Andrew Miller.
It didn’t help. The Indians bullpen allowed two runs on seven hits and a walk in their 8.1 innings, striking out eight.
Now the Blue Jays, a team carried by its powerful offense, is one game away from being swept by a team that’s missing three of its four best starting pitchers.
“I still believe our offense is due to erupt,” Gibbons said. “It hasn’t happened yet. But I’ve seen it too many times. Hopefully tomorrow is that day, we’ll see.”
Michael Saunders did homer off Dan Otero in the second inning, and Ezequiel Carrera’s fifth-inning triple off Zach McCallister helped Toronto tie the game at two.
That, though, wasn’t enough. When a team has to get eight-plus innings out of that many relievers, the odds are that someone is going to have a bad night. If any of the Indians did, the Blue Jays didn’t figure it out.
Otero got four outs. So did Jeff Manship. McAllister got three, leaving 14 to go. It was a tie game, but even with another game on Tuesday afternoon, Francona went all in.
Bryan Shaw came into the game in the fifth — the first time he’s done that this season — and the clock was ticking on Toronto’s season. Shaw gave up a single to Josh Donaldson, but retired Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to end the inning.
The Indians got two in the sixth to take a 4-2 lead, and the Blue Jays were down to 12 outs.
Shaw blew through the sixth on a grounder and two strikeouts, and came back out for the seventh. Kevin Pillar started the inning with a single, bringing Francona out of the dugout. A two-run lead with nine outs to go? In October, that usually means Miller, but not in Game 3 of the ALCS.
Instead, Francona happily broke another unwritten law of managing, bringing his closer in the seventh inning. It was Cody Allen who got through the seventh, retiring Donaldson to end it, and he got the first two outs of the eighth.
Only then did Miller make his appearance, striking out Russell Martin to end the eighth and set up his triumphant ninth.
That leaves the Blue Jays on the brink of elimination with Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber set to pitch Game 4.
Still, there’s a tiny ray of hope. Yes, only one team has ever come back from 3-0 down, but Cleveland has plenty of problems. Kluber will be pitching on short rest on Tuesday, and if he gets into trouble, the Indians bullpen will be running on fumes.
Get the series to Game 5, and Francona won’t have a reliable starter thanks to the injuries to Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Win that game, and take the series back to Cleveland to face Josh Tomlin and Bauer on short rest again.
It isn’t likely, given the way the Blue Jays have rolled over against the Cleveland bullpen, but it is the only chance they have.