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Andrew Miller reminds us why the postseason is so much fun

Miller came into the fifth inning of the ALDS on Thursday, and it made us think of super-relievers like Goose Gossage. Except, that’s not quite right ...

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Never forget that the leash of results-based analysis is short. The Indians won Game 1 of the ALDS, 5-4. All is well. They stole the game they needed to steal while they were shorthanded, and now Corey Kluber is pitching Game 2. All is well.

But it was millimeters away from failing.

This was how close we all were to talking ourselves around in circles about Andrew Miller, late-inning relief deity, shouldn’t have come into a game in the fifth inning:

Francona Too Clever For His Own Good

Indians Waste Miller in Fifth, Blow Game in Eighth

Terry-ball: Miller pleads the fifth (inning), rest of bullpen says eight is enough, please help me, this headline is awful, my mom wanted me to work in finance

Ten feet, maybe. That’s the fine line between stupid and clever. There would have been opinions, most of them bad, and you’d better believe I’d be at that opinion buffet. Baseball is a test that’s easy to pass when you get the answers first and write what you think the questions might have been.

As is, the Indians won, and we get to enjoy the novelty of a late-inning relief ace coming into a game in the fifth inning. Just like the old-timey firemen of yore! We all remember when pitchers like Goose Gossage used to come into the game in the fifth inning when the situation dictated.

Well, I don’t, personally. It probably happened.

Ugh, now we have to check. This will lead into a long-yet-relevant Goose Gossage digression, so you can just skip a few paragraphs if you want.

In 1976, Gossage was a starter for the White Sox, complete with a 12-inning complete game loss. He was converted to a fireman by the Pirates the next season after a trade, which is when he started his Hall of Fame path.

In 1986, he started to falter as a relief ace, and he never threw more than 58 innings or saved more than 13 games again. So, we’ll say his relief-ace peak was from 1977 through 1985.

The full list of the games he appeared in before the sixth inning in those nine seasons:

  • April 17, 1978 - Relieved Catfish Hunter in the fifth, immediately gave up a homer to blow the lead.

  • April 19, 1978 - Relieved Ken Holtzman in the fifth, pitched for 3⅔ innings in relief, losing on a walk-off error on a sacrifice bunt in the ninth.

  • June 19, 1978 - Relieved Ken Clay in the fourth, pitched for 4⅓ innings in relief, immediately lost the lead on a Willie Randolph error.

  • July 8, 1978 - Relieved Dave Rajsich in the fifth, pitched four innings, allowed a pair of dingers, took the loss

  • July 26, 1980 - Relieved Tom Underwood in the fifth with a one-run lead, a runner on second, and one out. Got a groundout, infield single, and a strikeout. Threw 4⅔ innings and picked up the win. Like some sort of manimal.

Five times. I’m using Gossage because he’s sort of the archetype of a fireman, the proto-closer who came in to put out the fire, regardless of what inning it was. That’s the romanticized version, at least. But once he was established as an unimpeachable relief badass, he came into five games in the fifth inning. Four of them with noted weirdo Billy Martin managing. His team lost four of those games. Not always his fault, mind you, but if it was an experimental strategy, the early returns weren’t promising.

This brings us to Terry Francona and Andrew Miller. It’s tempting to think that Francona was bringing Gossage back, at least in spirit, by going to Miller with the bases empty and two outs in the fifth inning. Except, that’s not quite how super-relievers were used in the past. There used to be some sort of calamity involved. That’s what happened with all of those Gossage outings up there. It’s where the "fireman" term came from.

When Miller came in, there was no fire. There was just a manager who didn’t like what he saw from his starter and figured this was the moment of truth. David Ortiz was lurking, a left-handed hitter (Brock Holt!) was up, and Francona figured that even if Holt somehow reached, Miller would either stop the next batter or Ortiz. Such is the confidence a manager has in the best out-for-out pitcher in the game.

Another way it wasn’t like those Gossage outings: Miller threw just two innings. It seems like a marathon outing to us, here in the future.

Whoa, slow down there, fella. It’s not 1978 anymore. "Save that arm," we cry! As Goose Gossage spits and adjusts his cup, which he’s totally still wearing to this day.

What the move to Miller in the fifth was, then: something new. We’ve seen managers tinker with arms willy-nilly, bringing relievers into the fifth inning, then plop them down for the next four, just because. We’ve seen the progression into the Eckersley era, when everything became specialized. And we’ve seen the decay of that philosophy, turning seasoned baseball minds into servants of the useless save.

I don’t know if Francona was right to bring Miller into the fifth. I’m suspecting it was an overreaction, possibly in response to the Orioles’ loss on Tuesday, and maybe not the best time to lay down the magic-reliever card. But it’s why the postseason is so much damned fun. It was an experienced manager who realized the gravity of the situation. It wasn’t an elimination game, but regular games beget elimination games if you screw up enough, so start pouring sawdust all over the place, just in case.

At this manager’s disposal was a lanky, clothespin-looking dude who threw Randy Johnson’s slider with Tom Glavine’s command, and he figured, eh, what the heck.

It might not have been smart. It might have been the smartest possible move, he wrote, with the siren-shriek of results-based analysis sounding in the distance. But it sure wasn’t using Ubaldo Jimenez in extra innings instead of your best pitcher, just in case you stumble into a lead later.

And with the importance of the postseason games, the managerial risks become weirder and more instructive. Madison Bumgarner on two day’s rest? Sure! A sore-armed Pedro Martinez to throw the final six innings of an ALDS clincher? We’ll try anything once! It’s not hard to draw a line from Martinez right to Bumgarner.

It’s not going to be hard for the next manager in a postseason pickle to look at Miller and Game 1 and think, yeah, I can do that, too. Bring the reliever into the fifth. Or sixth. Or seventh, whatever. It helps that Miller wasn’t the closer, freeing Francona up, but he certainly had something of a defined role to break. It was broken. And it all worked out.

The pendulum is swinging back. It was weird how they used Gossage back in the day. It was weird how the Orioles didn’t use Britton on Tuesday. And, frankly, it was a little weird how Francona used Miller in Game 1 of the ALDS, even if it worked.

There will be equilibrium. In 2129, sure, but we’re at least watching its genesis. That’s one of the reasons the postseason is so fun. It’s a research lab with defined conditions. Extra days off. Added importance. Special players. And managers get to mess around as they see fit.

I don’t know if the Indians win without Miller coming into the fifth. But I know what happened when he did. It makes it more likely to happen in the future. It’s all quite fun, though. It’s all quite fun.