“If we’re going to get where we want to go,” Francona said, “he’s going to carry a big load and we know that.”
Right knee tendinitis twice sent Miller to the disabled list in the second half of this season. He came back from the first stint on Aug. 18, but after two outings he went back on the D.L. and did not return again until Sept. 14. He appeared to have gotten fully healthy and did not allow a run in his final nine appearances of the regular season.
He insists the knee is now fine and that his fateful pitch to Bird — an ill-conceived and poorly located 96-miles-per-hour fastball — was just a mistake. He said it was a miscalculation to choose the fastball in the first place, and he left the pitch over the plate in Bird’s hitting zone. It was not, Miller said, a result of his right knee affecting his lengthy stride or distorting his pitching mechanics.
“I felt like I had more than enough,” he said after the game. “I made a pretty big mistake tonight, but it’s one swing of the bat and I’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
Before the home run, Miller had gotten the Indians out of a jam, retiring the first hitter he faced — Starlin Castro — on a bases-loaded pop-up with two outs in the bottom of the sixth.
And after Bird’s homer, Miller got Todd Frazier to fly out. Then, after only nine pitches, Francona took Miller out of the game to preserve him for the remainder of the series.
Frazier, for one, said Miller’s pitches were as tricky as ever in this series. After one particularly wicked slider, he paid his respects to Miller with a tip of the cap.
“He’s still there. He’s still nasty,” Frazier said. “He’s, what, 6-9, 6-10? and he’s kind of like a Chris Sale, to be honest with you. Comes after you and has a nasty off-speed. So I think all his stuff is there.”
Miller is listed at 6 feet 7 inches. And regardless of how impressive his pitches are, the most important asset for Miller, or for any late-inning relief pitcher, is the capacity to rebound from failure. As great as Mariano Rivera was in 1996 and 1997, the Yankees could not be certain that he would evolve into a dominant closer until 1998. That year, he pitched superbly after having giving up a postseason home run the previous year to Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar Jr., one that probably kept the Yankees from advancing to the A.L.C.S.
As with Rivera, Miller’s sample size of failure is very small. It was not until Game 4 of last year’s World Series, with the Indians comfortably ahead by six runs, that an opponent broke through against him in any postseason game. Before that game, Miller had a 0.00 E.R.A. in relief appearances with the Orioles (2014), the Yankees (2015) and then Cleveland.
Miller’s next appearance after Game 6 of the Series was in Game 7, and the Cubs proceeded to hit him harder, scoring twice.
His accumulated workload had finally worn him down, as was clearly the case with Aroldis Chapman, then the Cubs’ closer, who also had little left as the Series reached its thrilling conclusion.
On Monday night, in Game 4, Francona used eight pitchers in a game in which the Yankees built an early, and comfortable, lead. None of those eight pitchers was Miller. Francona was likely saving him for a do-or-die game on Wednesday in Cleveland. Miller may not look quite as sharp as he did last October, but in this series, he still looms large.