Show me someone who, back in October 2015, predicted that two major Cleveland sports teams would make it to their respective championship rounds in 2016, and I’ll show you an irrational Clevelander. 

However, as of Monday night, the Cleveland Indians are just one win away from turning that fantasy into a stunning reality as they try to follow in the footsteps of the defending NBA champion Cavaliers.

With a victory on the road in Game 3, Cleveland now leads the Toronto Blue Jays 3-0 in the American League Championship Series, and the two squads will play a potentially series-ending Game 4 on Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET at the Rogers Centre. 

Despite coming out on top, the Indians had an unusual and inauspicious start to Monday’s contest. After taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, Cleveland’s starter, Trevor Bauer, exited the game after pitching just two-thirds of an inning when his stitched-up right pinkie began dripping blood.

Bauer badly injured the pinkie finger on his pitching hand days earlier when—and this is true—he was repairing a drone. He even brought the drone that had malfunctioned and sliced his finger to a press conference, where he explained the incident. 

While Bauer will recover, his bizarre injury ended up having a significant impact on his team’s pitching staff, as Cleveland had to use six pitchers to get through Game 3 after Bauer left the mound. 

But before we get to how Bauer’s odd start will affect his team, let’s discuss what Toronto must do on Tuesday to avoid elimination. 

The term “must-win” gets thrown around too often in sports, but when I say Game 4 is a must-win for Toronto, I mean it in the old-fashioned sense—as in, the Jays must win, or they can hit the golf course until spring training. If they are to avoid that fate, the Blue Jays must get at least one home run from the trio of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion and score at least three runs by end of the fifth inning. 

Baseball is a complicated sport, and it can be managed and micromanaged with painstaking detail. Having said that, there’s a simple explanation as to why Toronto is facing a devastating sweep—the Blue Jays’ infamous home run-blasting offense has become a hollow shell of itself this series.

As I noted during their division series, the Blue Jays rely on the long ball to power their offense and win games, and they are strikingly unsuccessful when they do not hit home runs. 

Michael Saunders did go deep in the second inning of Game 3, but his solo home run was the only big fly Toronto hit in the game. Even beyond home runs, the Blue Jays’ normally prolific offense has turned anemic by any measure. Toronto had just seven hits in Game 3. 

For Monday’s Game 3, Toronto manager John Gibbons shook up his lineup in an attempt to generate runs. In the first two games, Ezequiel Carrera led off and Bautista hit fourth. 

After scoring just one run total in those two games, Gibbons moved Bautista and his .366 regular-season OBP into the leadoff spot and dropped Carrera to eighth, thus getting his best hitters to the plate earlier and more often. The move did not ignite the offense the way Gibbons had hoped, though. 

Cleveland’s pitching has been outstanding, yes, but the Indians started Josh Tomlin in Game 2 and depended almost completely on their bullpen in Game 3. In other words, the kind of power outage Toronto has experienced can’t be blamed solely on the Indians’ pitching acumen. 

Next, the timing of Toronto’s run scoring is vitally important because of the dominance that Cleveland’s bullpen, deftly handled by manager Terry Francona, has exhibited late in games these playoffs. There is no better symbol of the success of the Indians bullpen than Andrew Miller.

In Game 2, Miller came on to throw two perfect innings while striking out five of the six batters he faced. Then in Game 3, Miller recorded the last four outs while giving up only one hit and striking out three. His postseason ERA remained at zero. 

If the Jays can’t get on the board early in Game 4, they’ll rue their incompetence when they have to score off Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, which has proven to be nearly impossible. 

Of course, Toronto must limit the Indians offense as well if it hopes to keep its season alive, but Cleveland hasn’t been tearing the cover off the ball, scoring fewer than three runs per game so far in this series.

The Blue Jays don’t necessarily need to hang 10 runs on the Indians like they did to the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the division series. Instead, it likely will be enough to extend the series if Toronto’s offense can even resemble its past potency in Game 4. 

As for Cleveland, the Indians find themselves in the driver’s seat entering Game 4. Hailing from Cleveland, though, the last thing they want to do is tempt fate and give the Blue Jays any momentum. If Cleveland is going to complete the championship series sweep, which would give the team its seventh consecutive win this postseason, it will have to combat Toronto’s probable paths to victory.

Namely, the Indians must continue their excellent defensive play behind projected starter Corey Kluber to keep Toronto’s offense down, particularly Bautista, Donaldson and Encarnacion, as well as get production from the top half of their batting order against Toronto starter Aaron Sanchez. If Francona does send Kluber to the mound, he will be pitching on just three days’ rest after starting Game 1 on Friday. 

Kluber, unsurprisingly, impressed in Game 1, tossing 6.1 strong, scoreless innings to lift the Indians to a 2-0 win. He did give up six hits and two walks in the game, but he gave up just one extra-base hit—a double to Encarnacion. 

Although they scored only two runs in Game 3, the Blue Jays did put several good swings on the ball throughout the game. Notably, Francisco Lindor turned a slick double play from one knee on a hard ground ball from Ryan Goins in the second inning, and Coco Crisp made a sliding grab in left field to save at least one run in the seventh on a stinging line drive from Donaldson. 

Perhaps Kluber will limit such hard-hit balls in Game 4, but if the Blue Jays start putting together at-bats culminating in rockets hit to all fields, Cleveland must be able to limit the damage with its gloves. 

Half of the Indians’ runs in Game 3 were produced by the previously silent bat of Mike Napoli. Entering Monday’s game, Napoli had been 2-for-18 in the postseason and had yet to drive in a run, but he went 2-for-3 with a walk in Game 3. His two hits came in the form of an RBI-double in the first inning—one that clanked off Bautista’s glove in left-center field—and, three innings later, a home run to nearly the same spot that his double had landed short of the wall. 

After Toronto managed to tie the game up in the fifth, Jason Kipnis went deep as well, hitting his second home run of the playoffs but his first since the first game of the division series. 

It is guys like Napoli and Kipnis, as well as Carlos Santana and Lindor, who will be responsible for securing Cleveland’s ticket to the World Series. In a closeout game, where else should the team look for offense but to the guys who have been doing it all year long?

However, they will have their work cut out for them. Although Sanchez is not necessarily a household name, the 24-year-old pitched to a 15-2 record in 2016 and added 161 strikeouts. 

If Sanchez and the Jays bullpen can silence those guys’ bats, the Indians might have to head home to Cleveland to wrap this series up. 

Lastly, it would be wrong to take the Indians’ outstanding bullpen for granted, but how can one not have confidence in that group at this point in the postseason after what we’ve seen? If the Indians bring a lead late, or even midway, into Game 4, Cleveland and its fans will have to feel good about their chances to make the franchise’s first World Series since 1997. 

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