How Andrew Miller became the most important reliever in baseball

— -- In the seventh inning of Game 1 of the World Series, Indians reliever? Andrew Miller found himself in a pot of boiling water. Entrusted to hold a 3-0 lead over the Cubs after starter Corey Kluber gave up a leadoff single, Miller walked the next batter, Kyle Schwarber, and then gave up a single to Javier Baez to load the bases with nobody out. And baseball, as it so often does when the leaves change, turned from untroubled to high stress, a pitch-by-pitch Western showdown.

Suddenly, quite possibly the entire World Series was at stake. Kluber had cruised, had thrown only 88 pitches, but thinking ahead, Cleveland manager Terry Francona gambled: Miller was so good, so reliable -- even though he hadn't pitched in nearly a week -- that Francona could remove his ace in a must-win Game 1 against the favored Cubs to give Kluber a better chance to start three times in the World Series. Losing here would undermine the entire plan.

Miller attacked the next batter, Willson Contreras, who hit a shallow fly to center, which Rajai Davis caught. But in his haste to keep Ben Zobrist from scoring from third, Davis missed an easy double-play chance at second or first. "I was so focused on the catcher," Davis said after. "It was quite a long run too, by the way."

One out, but now, because Davis threw home, Miller had to get two more outs instead of one. He overpowered shortstop? Addison Russell?and fought an old Boston teammate, David Ross, to a bases-loaded, 3-2 count before striking him out on what would have been ball four, but Ross couldn't check his swing.

It was a sweaty, delicious, late-game October exchange whose encore was nearly as tense. Chicago brought the tying run to the plate again in the eighth off Miller, who again escaped, this time by striking out Schwarber to end the inning. Freed, Cleveland scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth for a 6-0 Game 1 win.

High noon that night had ended, but in truth, the Series' marquee matchup was just beginning. Miller didn't pitch in the Cubs' 5-1 Game 2 win, but his versatility and ability to shut down the fearsome Cubs lineup over multiple innings has become the drama of the Series. Miller threw 46 pitches in Game 1. The Cubs had their chances and weren't overmatched, but still, they didn't break him.

But he was no longer just Andrew Miller. He was Andrew Miller, missing World Series piece at the trade deadline. He was Andrew Miller, realization of the closer by committee, who could pitch anytime when the game was on the line, whether it was the fifth inning or the ninth. He was Andrew Miller, the resurrection of Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter, the old closers who made games three innings shorter. Most importantly, however, he was now Andrew Miller, Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series.

"Don't get me started on Andrew Miller," said Fox baseball analyst? Alex Rodriguez, who played with Miller on the Yankees this season. "Phenomenal person. Phenomenal pitcher. I know it sounds really clich?, but he's the guy who stuck with it, turned it around, believed when maybe no one else did. It's remarkable."

TO APPRECIATE JUST how remarkable the Andrew Miller story has been, consider that Miller was drafted sixth overall by the Tigers in the June 2006 draft and, within 90 days, was pitching in the big leagues -- barely any minor league prep for a 6-foot-7 left-hander growing into his body at the major league level. He was the new prototype emerging in baseball: the basketball-sized power arm.

Consider that Miller is 31 years old, has been in the big leagues 11 seasons. Consider he is the X factor of this World Series. Consider that he was unable to put it together as a starting pitcher, or in his words, was a constant "trade piece" with no security, and is playing for his sixth team -- with the stuff Cubs manager Joe Maddon referred to as "that slurve-slider-curvy thing he has." He lasted 21 games over parts of two seasons with the Tigers before being traded to Florida in 2007 in the Miguel Cabrera- Dontrelle Willis deal.

"It was command. He didn't have the command," former Tigers manager Jim Leyland recalled. "But I think he's got it right. This game is hard. Success is definitely not a straight line, but are you willing to work?"

With the Marlins, control issues doomed him. In 2010, primarily as a starter, he posted a 1-5 record with an 8.54 ERA, allowing 51 hits and 26 walks in just 32 2/3 innings. Miller was the guy no one wanted to be: the top-10 draft pick who couldn't put it together.

"In 2010, I had been in the big leagues for parts of the previous four years, and I was the worst player on my Double-A team, so at that point I was pretty frustrated," Miller said. "Just a little perspective. You don't hear guys talk about minor league teams, and I was maybe the second-oldest guy, and I kind of thought I was an afterthought. The real turning point was when I got to Boston. I was no longer a trade piece who was asked to perform because they gave away pieces. Just reset. Focus on baseball."

The path to the ALCS MVP as the versatile reliever occurred by accident, really. Red Sox GM Ben Cherington acquired Miller after the 2010 season to be a starter. In 2011, Miller started 12 games for Francona, then the Red Sox manager, and that's the last time Miller worked as a starter.?

"I was supposed to be one of the seven to eight guys fighting for a fifth starter spot and got hurt," Miller said of his 2011 season. Then, I was eliminated."

The next two-plus years in Boston, Miller became a valuable piece of the Red Sox bullpen, but he missed the 2013 playoffs and World Series championship with a left foot injury suffered at the All-Star break.

"We kind of saw it, and we were like, 'Just focus on being a reliever,'" said Cubs pitcher Jon Lester, who was Miller's teammate in Boston. "You could just see it building throughout that year, and, unfortunately, he got hurt. Our bullpen was lockdown at the end of the year."

MILLER IS NOW at his peak. The Red Sox traded him to Baltimore during the 2014 season, but he remained a reliever. After the season, he joined the basketball team-looking pitching staff of the Yankees as a free agent, with Aroldis Chapman?(6-foot-5), CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda?(both 6-foot-7), and Dellin Betances?(6-foot-8). In 2015, he had a 2.04 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings. As the 2016 trade deadline approached, Miller's value became even more apparent. The command was there. He was 6-1 with a 1.39 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings. Miller, finally, had found himself.

"It just isn't easy. I think we get sidetracked when you see the players who are the superstars, the Kris Bryants of the world, the Francisco Lindors, the guys who are young and having success and don't look like they're ever going to look back," Miller said. "I think that's not normal. Everybody else has to go through a grind, through the ups and downs. Those guys have slumps that last a week. I've had slumps that lasted years."

Now, he has a fastball that peaks at 97, a slider around 84 making the differential hard enough to pick up, never mind the movement that fools so many hitters. His versatility in the postseason, with its singular matchups and numerous off days, allows Francona to use Miller in the fifth inning, as he did against Toronto in the ALCS, or in late-game situations.

"Miller? He's a bad man," retired Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said of his former teammate, who helped eliminate the Ortiz-led Red Sox from the playoffs in an ALDS sweep earlier this month.

"It's great to see him build the confidence and repertoire he has. You see what he's able to do with his slider, but not only that, with his fastball," Lester said. "He locates his heater. He's not just a rock-chucker up there, throwing and hoping that they swing and miss. He has an idea."

Miller will likely be a prize come free agency after the 2018 season, but neither Maddon nor Francona thinks it will be possible for Miller to pitch in so many capacities during the regular season. There just aren't enough off days. Still, Maddon calls Miller one of the new "hybrid" relievers who harkens back to the 1970s, when relievers pitched multiple innings at different times during a game. That flexibility, and how the Cubs deal with it, will be a determining factor in the series -- similar to how Miller four years ago worked to survive and salvage his career.

"It's a story written 150 times in spring training. There are guys competing for jobs, you get hurt, and you lose it," Miller said. "I was out of options, and if I wanted to play on the big league team, I had to find a way to get to the big league team. There were no roster spots on the rotation, and the bullpen was the way to go. In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise, but you don't know it at the time. At the time, all I knew was I wasn't starting, and it was a shock, but you want to get to the big leagues. You find a way. I'm glad that it happened."