Fran­cona makes just the right moves

Guided by man­ager who fol­lows his gut, Cleve­land de­fies odds as it ad­vances

Baltimore Sun - - MLB PLAYOFFS - By Tom Withers

CLEVE­LAND — Drenched after his play­ers joy­fully doused him with cham­pagne and beer, Cleve­land In­di­ans man­ager Terry Fran­cona stood at the cen­ter of the vis­i­tor’s club­house Mon­day in Fen­way Park, a ball­park where he had been in the mid­dle of so many sim­i­lar cel­e­bra­tions.

Fran­cona didn’t get a hit, steal a base or record an out as Cleve­land sur­pris­ingly swept the Bos­ton Red Sox in the Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Se­ries. He did just about ev­ery­thing else. As he re­moved his glasses to wipe the sudsy shower from his face, Fran­cona could fi­nally re­lax — for a night. His moves pushed the In­di­ans deeper into Oc­to­ber.

The bub­ble-gum-chomp­ing, drought­bust­ing mo­ti­va­tor is Cleve­land’s Most Valu­able Player.

Whether mas­ter­fully ma­neu­ver­ing his bullpen in Game 1, play­ing a hunch with his lineup in Game 2, us­ing pla­toon play­ers or dar­ing to pitch to slug­ger David Or­tiz in Game 3 as Bos­ton fans roared, Fran­cona had the per­fect touch as the In­di­ans won three straight and ad­vanced to face the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Cham­pi­onship Se­ries, which be­gins Fri­day.

Fran­cona, af­fec­tion­ately known as Tito — his dad’s name — re­fused to take credit and turned the at­ten­tion on his play­ers.

“I’ve done it be­fore,” said Fran­cona, who led the Red Sox to World Se­ries ti­tles in 2004 and ’07. “You know what, what it meant to me is to cel­e­brate with the In­di­ans and our crew. I don’t care where it is. I re­spect that we beat a heck of a team, but to cel­e­brate with our guys, that’s what was mean­ing­ful for me.”

The In­di­ans have been de­fy­ing odds — and base­ball logic — for months. De­spite a slew of in­juries to key play­ers, los­ing two start­ing pitch­ers for the post­sea­son and be­ing given lit­tle chance to win the AL Cen­tral, they over­pow­ered the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Roy­als be­fore dis­miss­ing the Red Sox, who led the ma­jors in scor­ing but man­aged just seven runs in the play­offs.

The ob­sta­cles have only em­pow­ered the In­di­ans. Fran­cona made sure they were never knocked off track. He did more than man­age games, mas­sag­ing egos and mak­ing ev­ery­one be­lieve.

“It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary,” In­di­ans pres­i­dent Chris An­tonetti said. “He’s a master at it. He In­di­ans man­ager Terry Fran­cona cel­e­brates with play­ers after de­feat­ing the Red Sox to ad­vance to the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries on Mon­day. “I re­spect that we beat a heck of a team, but to cel­e­brate with our guys, that’s what was mean­ing­ful for me,” he said. re­ally un­der­stands peo­ple. He builds re­la­tion­ships. He cre­ates con­nec­tions. He com­mu­ni­cates ex­traor­di­nar­ily well. He has the right bal­ance of pro­vid­ing a pro­fes­sional and pre­pared group, but also hav­ing fun. If there is any­body bet­ter, I’m not sure I’ve been around him.”

His ro­ta­tion close to sham­bles, Fran­cona un­der­stood the im­por­tance of win­ning the opener against Bos­ton.

After Trevor Bauer, whobe­gan the sea­son in the bullpen, got him into the fifth in­ning, Fran­cona brought in tall left-han­der and for­mer Ori­ole An­drew Miller — nor­mally used in the sev­enth and eighth — and Cleve­land’s re­liev­ers closed out the 5-4 win.

De­spite Bos­ton left-han­der David Price’s be­ing on the mound in Game 2, Fran­cona went against the book and started left- handed hit­ter Lon­nie Chise­nall, who bat­ted just .217 against left-han­ders dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son. Chisen­hall was in more for his de­fense but hit a three-run homer in the sec­ond in­ning of Cleve­land’s 6-0 win in Game 2.

“Some­times,” Fran­cona said af­ter­ward, “good play­ers make you look smarter than you prob­a­bly are.”

He trusted his gut after Game 3 was post­poned a day, stick­ing with Josh Tom­lin as his starter. The right-han­der, who had nearly a 12.00 ERA in Au­gust and briefly was bumped from the ro­ta­tion, held the Red Sox to one run through five in­nings. Fran­cona sent him back out in the sixth be­fore again turn­ing to Miller, who gave up a sac­ri­fice fly to Or­tiz and then struck out Han­ley Ramirez with a run­ner at sec­ond.

Ev­ery­thing Fran­cona did in the se­ries worked, in­clud­ing a mo­ment that al­most back­fired be­fore Game1.

As he shook hands with Red Sox man­ager John Far­rell, Fran­cona took a wad of gum from his mouth and tossed it at Dustin Pe­droia, one of his fa­vorite play­ers. Pe­droia grabbed and swat­ted it to the ground, much to Fran­cona’s re­lief.

“Thank God he caught that,” Fran­cona said with a laugh. “It was go­ing to hit Han­ley right in the face, and I don’t know Han­ley that well.”

The play­ful ges­ture to­ward Pe­droia is typ­i­cal of Fran­cona, who de­vel­ops a deep trust in­side the club­house with how he treats play­ers. He’s firm but fair and prides him­self on keep­ing his door open. A few weeks ago, Ok­la­homa City Thun­der coach Billy Dono­van vis­ited the In­di­ans, and when he walked by the man­ager’s of­fice, Fran­cona was play­ing cards with Tom­lin.

“That was the day we took him out of the ro­ta­tion,” Fran­cona said. “I was ex­plain­ing that to Billy. I said, ‘Two hours ear­lier, we had taken him out of the ro­ta­tion,’ and he was back there play­ing crib­bage with me. That, to me, shows that we can get through any­thing.”

And if Fran­cona keeps play­ing his cards right, the In­di­ans can go any­where.

ELSA/GETTY IM­AGES

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