CLEVELAND — David Ross marvels at Andrew Miller and the break on his sinister slider.
“He’s hard to catch,” said the Chicago Cubs catcher and Miller’s teammate in Boston three years ago. “When you know he’s hard to catch, you know he’s hard to hit.”
Miller escaped a pair of jams to pitch two scoreless innings and help the Cleveland Indians beat the Chicago Cubs 6-0 in the World Series opener Tuesday night.
A 6-foot-7 lefty with an enormous wingspan, Miller has developed baseball’s most unhittable pitch. He is perhaps the biggest factor in Cleveland’s first AL pennant since 1997, a throwback willing to close or enter in the middle innings.
“It kind of sets the tone for our mindset as a club, just trying to figure out a way to help your team win,” Cleveland closer Cody Allen said.
Now 31, Miller was acquired from the Yankees on Aug. 1 for four prospects. He has thrown 22 scoreless innings in postseason play, including 13 2/3 innings with 24 strikeouts this year. He was voted AL Championship Series MVP, a rare setup man to gain a postseason honor.
“I would say before that, his resume is not too shabby, either,” Indians manager Terry Francona said during the series against Toronto. “There’s a reason we gave up what we did for him. We thought that he could be a guy that we could leverage in situations like we have. And it would make our bullpen that much better and give us a chance to keep playing.”
In New York, Miller was the baby-faced member of the hard-throwing No Runs DMC bullpen trio that included Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, dealt to the Cubs on July 25.
New York’s closer in 2015, Miller embraced his new role as Chapman’s setup man. With Cleveland, Francona has brought him in as early as the fifth inning, and like an understudy shifting parts each performance, Miller relishes his interchangeable roles.
“The best thing that could possibly happen is to be on a winning team, and that’s what I enjoy,” he said, his face partly obscured by a beard regrown following his exit from the clean-cut Yankees. “If that requires me to pitch the second inning or the ninth inning or play shortstop, I don’t really care. I want to be a part of it.”
Selected by Detroit with the sixth overall in the 2006 amateur draft, Miller struggled with the Tigers, Marlins and Red Sox, compiling a 21-29 record from 2006-11, when most of his appearances were as a starter.
“The start of my career wasn’t anything that you’d brag about or write home about,” he said.
His career started to change in 2012, on March 20 to be precise. Boston manager Bobby Valentine suggested he work from the stretch fulltime to lessen the movement of his big frame, and Miller injured his left hamstring on his third pitch in an exhibition game against Toronto. When Miller returned, he was relegated to the bullpen.
“The hamstring had a lot to do with it when you look back at it, probably an awful lot to do with it,” Valentine said. “He wasn’t going to be able to be stretched out enough to compete for the starting role.”
Miller simplified his repertoire in the bullpen, ditching his sinker and changeup and limiting himself to his fastball and slider. He had a career-best 3.35 ERA, striking out 51 in 40 1/3 innings.
“There were no roster spots in the rotation, and the bullpen was the way to go,” he said. “I think in hindsight it was a really good thing. It was a blessing in disguise. But you don’t know it at the time.”
After a torn ligament in his left foot caused him to miss the second half of the 2013 season — and Boston’s run to the World Series title — he struck out 103 in 62 1/3 innings the following year with the Red Sox and Orioles, who acquired him at the trade deadline.
“He was trying to figure out himself. He’s had some failure as a starter and he struggled through what a lot of starters go through early in their careers, and look at him now,” said Juan Nieves, Miller’s pitching coach with the Red Sox in 2013 and ’14.
“It’s a really quick, sharp slider. It starts in the zone and it ends up a lot of times either a strike called or it’s in and out of the zone real quick,” he added.
Miller didn’t miss any time this season despite breaking a bone in his right wrist when hit by a liner off the bat of Atlanta’s Willians Astudillo during a spring training game on March 30.
His durability has been prodigious and his flexibility vital. Miller has entered as early as the fifth inning and late as the ninth over seven appearances this postseason
“It wasn’t that long ago I was pitching in some long situations and sometimes in the eighth inning in close situations,” Miller said. “For those guys, which are the majority of relievers, flexibility is not something you offer, it’s something you have to have. You don’t have a choice. If you’re not flexible, you’re not going to have a spot in the big leagues.”