Terry Francona is on the verge of ending another long World Series drought.
Reggie Jackson earned the title of Mr. October. Call Francona Mgr. October.
Cleveland’s maestro of a manager, who has pushed all the right buttons this season and especially over the past few weeks, moved closer to capturing his third Series title as the Indians beat the Chicago Cubs 7-2 in Game 4 on Saturday night to take a 3-1 lead.
Francona is the one who guided the Boston Red Sox around the “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004, helping them to their first title in 86 years. He led them to another three years later.
And now he’s got the resilient Indians on the edge of taking their first World Series in 68 years.
The 57-year-old would never take any credit for Cleveland’s success, but the Indians wouldn’t be where they are if not for Francona, who improved to 11-1 in World Series games.
The guy everyone calls Tito – his dad’s name – claims he doesn’t have a crystal ball. But he certainly seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to setting his lineup, pulling pitchers at just the right time and keeping his players focused.
“He’s at the front of all we do – our attitude we take onto the field, the looseness we kind of carry ourselves and create the environment of having fun and being ourselves – that all starts with him,” said Jason Kipnis, whose three-run homer in the seventh blew the game open.
Following Cleveland’s 1-0 victory in Game 3, a chess match with Chicago’s Joe Maddon that he called “one of the most agonizing” games of his managerial career, Francona made the difficult decision of not starting first baseman Mike Napoli in Game 4.
“He’s like the heart and soul of our team,” Francona said beforehand. “It bothers me to sit him, a lot.”
Francona played Carlos Santana at first instead, and the move panned out when he homered leading off the second inning against John Lackey. And although his move proved to be wise, Francona wasn’t happy he had to keep Napoli on the bench before using him as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning. Napoli flied out to the warning track in left-center.
“I still wasn’t pleased that Nap didn’t play,” he said. “But he’ll be in there tomorrow. His one at-bat, he took a really good swing that, I think, should help make him feel a little better going into tomorrow.”
Francona has been forced to be creative with his lineup during the three games at Wrigley Field, where the Indians have had to play by National League rules and couldn’t use their designated hitter.
He took a risk by starting Santana in left field for Game 3 even though the former catcher had played just four innings in his career in left. It worked, though, as Santana caught the only ball hit his way on a night when the wind was blowing out in Wrigley.
“That was probably the funnest moment of the game,” Francona said of Santana’s catch in the first. “I was going crazy in the dugout. Then I thought I better cool it because there might be another one that finds him.”
None did, and Francona made several more astute moves in the first Series game at Wrigley in 71 years. He pulled starter Josh Tomlin in the fifth and ace reliever Andrew Miller came in and shut down the Cubs. And when Miller’s turn came up to bat, Francona sent in pinch-hitter Coco Crisp, who drove in the game’s only run.
Of course he did.
Francona also got a little lucky.
He made so many double switches that he ran out of position players, and was going to have to bat Game 4 starter Corey Kluber.
“He almost used some guys that weren’t on the roster,” joked Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. “I mean, there’s no better manager in all of baseball than him. He thinks of everything at every moment. I’ve learned so much from him.”
Francona knew just what to do with Kluber on Saturday night.
Miller was throwing in the bullpen when Anthony Rizzo doubled leading off the sixth. Miller, who has been virtually unhittable in the postseason, was ready but Francona stayed with Kluber and he promptly retired the next three batters.
It’s been like that all month as the Indians, who have been overlooked despite running away with the AL Central, swept Boston, beat Toronto in five games and are now a win away from their first title since 1948.
The Indians can almost taste the champagne, but Francona won’t let them think too far ahead.
“Nothing changes. We’re going to show up tomorrow – the only thing that changes is we’ll pack our bags, because we’re going to go home one way or the other, and we’ll show up and try to beat a really good pitcher, and that’s what we always do. Nothing needs to change.”
That ’48 Cleveland team was managed by Lou Boudreau, who was also the club’s starting shortstop.
Francona laughed before Game 4 when he was asked if he was ready to play short.
“I’m just trying to handle managing,” he said. “That will be enough.”
It’s been more than that.
Republished with permission from the Associated Press.