CLEVELAND -- The Indians had little choice. If they were going to have a deep postseason run, and somehow be in a position to win the World Series, they were going to have to do it with their top arms leading the way and shouldering an incredibly heavy load.
As Andrew Miller crouched near the mound with his arms on his knees, following a sixth-inning home run by David Ross, it became clear on Wednesday night just how much Cleveland had asked of him and Corey Kluber. The Cubs broke through against both, making a difficult task an even more daunting one for the Tribe in an 8-7, 10-inning Game 7 defeat that ended with Chicago celebrating its first World Series crown in 108 years.
Before the postseason began, Cleveland knew the landscape. The team would be without starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, meaning the rotation was down to Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. On the plus side, the postseason schedule includes more days off, so Francona planned on pushing his relief trio of Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw more than the manager ever had before.
When Cleveland breezed through the first two rounds, while throwing convention to the wind, Francona was praised for the manner in which he utilized his relief weapons. The manager also walked a fine line with his rotation, sticking with his three arms, with the exception of one start by rookie Ryan Merritt in the American League Championship Series. In the World Series, Kluber, Bauer and Tomlin would each be required to work on short rest.
The plan nearly worked, too.
"He did a great job with it," Bauer said of Francona. "The pitchers did a great job with it. We threw the ball really well all playoffs."
In fact, there were historic elements to Cleveland's pitching in the postseason.
Miller logged more innings (19 1/3) than any reliever had in one year in playoff history, while also establishing a record for strikeouts (30) by a reliever in a single postseason. The left-hander set a record with 10 consecutive outings consisting of at least 1 1/3 innings, and set another mark with eight straight shutout appearances that included at least four outs.
Kluber started Games 1, 4 and 7 in the World Series, ending with 34 1/3 innings in the postseason. The right-hander is one of only nine pitchers in AL history to post at least that many innings in the playoffs in one year. Kluber had 35 strikeouts in the postseason, powering a Cleveland staff that turned in the second-highest strikeout total (64) for an AL club in World Series history.
Allen ended with 24 strikeouts and no runs allowed in 13 2/3 innings in the postseason.
"They were unbelievable," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "You couldn't ask for anything more. They pitched with everything they had. I'm just proud to be part of it, to get to watch them. It was a fantastic job."
Kluber, Miller and Allen combined for 67 1/3 innings in the playoffs, or 50.2 percent of Cleveland's innings (134) as a whole. If you factor in setup man Shaw, four pitchers accounted for 58 percent of the Indians' total innings. Francona was going to live and die with his best arms, and the strategy paid off in the form of a 7-1 record through the first two rounds, and a 3-1 edge in the World Series before Chicago's comeback.
After allowing only 23 earned runs over the first 13 postseason games combined, Cleveland's pitching gave up 17 runs over the last two games of the year.
"It's unfortunate that they had to do it a lot," Indians outfielder Rajai Davis said. "It kind of overloaded them. They were up for the challenge. They gave us all they had. That's tough to do, considering we kind of ran low with our pitching. We ran low, and it kind of hurt us late. But, what can you do when you're two starters go down? You've just got to play. Keep playing."
In Game 7, Kluber did not look like himself from the start.
Working on three days' rest for the second straight outing, Kluber was elevating his pitches and not missing bats. The right-hander normally thrives with a combination of groundouts and strikeouts, but Chicago was consistently putting the ball in the air, beginning with a leadoff homer by Dexter Fowler in the first. Even with Kluber clearly laboring, Francona stuck by his ace for the start of the fifth, which Javier Baez opened with a home run.
Baez's blast ended the night for Kluber, who was charged with four runs on six hits. For the first time in his Major League career, Kluber finished with no strikeouts.
"I don't think we have time to think about all of that stuff," said Kluber, when asked if he was fighting fatigue. "Everybody wants to go out there and try to contribute and do whatever it takes to get a win. [I felt] good enough. I just made a few mistakes and they were able to hit a couple home runs off of them."
The Cubs said it helped that this was their third look at Kluber in a nine-day span.
"We were just hoping he wasn't quite as sharp," said Ben Zobrist, who took home World Series MVP honors. "Hat's off to him for being such a stud for their team and coming back after short rest both his second and third starts in the Series. I just feel like we were able to make the adjustment because we saw them more."
Miller took over after Baez's home run in the fifth inning and immediately surrendered a single to Fowler. The relief ace later issued a walk to Kris Bryant, who scored on a single to right by Anthony Rizzo. In the sixth, Ross launched his home run to straightaway center. When the smoke cleared, Miller had allowed two runs on four hits in 2 1/3 innings. He had not given up four hits as a reliever since 2011.
"I don't think there's any excuses this time of year," Miller said. "It's pretty easy to get up for these games."
Unfortunately for the Indians, there are no more games left. They ran out of season, and out of gas.
"He did what we needed to almost win it all," Kluber said of Francona's efforts. "One win from it. He pushed the buttons and everyone went out there and had faith that it was going to work out."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.