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Friday, May 26, 2017
Sports

Indians lefty, former Rays draftee Andrew Miller changing game for relievers

CLEVELAND — The player with the potential to have the single biggest impact on the World Series that opened in Cleveland on Tuesday night could have been a Ray.

Or at least a Devil Ray.

Andrew Miller, the dominating reliever whose early-and-often usage by the Indians has changed the dynamic of postseason bullpen management, was a third-round pick in 2003 by Tampa Bay’s first regime.

And, as a product of Gainesville’s Buchholz High, he was intrigued by the prospects of pitching for what was essentially his hometown team.

But money was something of an issue, as was Miller’s own maturity, or lack thereof. He said he wasn’t ready at 18 for the pressures of the big-league deal and fast track the Rays were offering, figuring he’d probably be better prepped for pro ball after three years at North Carolina.

“I wasn’t ready for the major leagues,” he said. “I really liked the idea of having that localness or whatever, but it wasn’t meant to be. I knew I wanted to go to college unless somebody absolutely blew me away. … I really enjoyed my time in college, and I feel like I went to college and got better.

“So I think for me, in hindsight, it was the right thing to do.”

Miller starred for the Tar Heels then was a first-round pick three years later by the Tigers, signing for a guaranteed $5.5 million. Though even then it took a couple trades, a release and a shift from starting to bullpen work for the 6-foot-7 lefty to find his groove.

But now?

During stints with the Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees (who signed him to a four-year, $36 million deal), and another trade to the Indians, Miller emerged as a weapon of lineup destruction, mixing a blazing fastball and killer slider.

And his dazzling postseason continued in Tuesday’s Series opener when he got out of — after getting into — jams in two scoreless innings. In his seven postseason appearances, he has thrown 132/3 scoreless innings, striking out 24 of 51 and allowing seven hits and four walks.

The point is not only how incredibly well he has pitched but when, going against the traditional paradigm of saving the best reliever for the ninth inning.

The Indians have summoned Miller, and he has responded, in the highest leverage situations. That has been as early as the fifth inning, and bridging more than one — and as many as 22/3 — each time, unselfishly and with no complaints or pouting about getting a hold rather than a save. He was named MVP of the AL Championship Series while getting just one save.

“At this point in my career, winning is the most important thing,” Miller said. “I’m in a good situation, I’m under a good contract, so I think the best thing that can possibly happen is to be on a winning team. 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.”

The Indians made it a priority to strengthen their bullpen at the trade deadline, seeking an impact reliever to work in high-leverage situations, and pried Miller from the Yankees for a haul of prospects.

“We didn’t know we’d get the best one at the time,” pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “It’s been unbelievable. Obviously if he wasn’t on our team and we didn’t make that trade we wouldn’t be here right now.”

“The flexibility that guy has, the unselfishness with which he goes about his business is unbelievable,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “I actually think he’s setting a precedent here where more managers are going to start using bullpens like this.”

What the Indians have done with Miller is not totally radical — the Rays are among the teams that also have deployed relievers based on leverage — but this stretch has been an extreme. Also something of an aberration, made possible by the built-in off days of the playoff format.

“No, there’s no way guys can do that through the regular season,” Callaway said. “We can use him whatever inning he can give us, or the two outs he can give us, three out of four days. … You have to maximize his appearances and those leveraged situations at the same time.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, another member of the leverage legion, also cautions against thinking the expanded duties can be the norm, based on both physical wear and mental approach.

“To attempt to do that during a regular season, I don’t know if Rollie Fingers exists anymore,” he said. “It would be hard to get a guy to do that and have that kind of success.”

Miller couldn’t be much happier, about the present or the past.

“I can’t look back and complain,” he said. “For me, it worked out pretty well.”

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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