Resurgent Rotation Following the Lead of its Ace

Corey Kluber entered his start against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 13 in a funk. He was coming off four consecutive rough outings. The reigning American League Cy Young winner was looking nothing like the guy the Indians and their fans saw all last season. Then things changed.

On that evening, Kluber turned back the clock to the 2014 campaign and struck out 18 Cardinals hitters on his way to eight superb shutout innings and a victory for the Tribe. It seemed to be what the doctor ordered for Cleveland’s ace as he has followed that showing with two more impressive games. All told, in his last three starts, Kluber has allowed just two earned runs, pitching eight or more frames in each. He certainly seems like the dominant guy he was in 2014. Kluber’s record is still lagging at 2-5, but his ERA is getting closer and closer to that of a staff ace, now down to 3.49 in 10 starts.

Even better news for the Indians is that the rest of the rotation seems to have followed the lead of its No. 1 starter. Much like last year, once Kluber got hot, so too did the rest of the starting five. Last year, Kluber led the way for a rotation that was among the best in baseball in August and September, nearly carrying the Tribe into the postseason. The good rotation vibes seem to be back.

Just as Kluber struggled for a stretch, so did other Indians starters whom the club had counted heavily on to help lead a playoff push this year. Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, T.J. House and Danny Salazar – all stalwarts in last year’s stretch run – had their difficulties at points this year. House struggled, got injured and is still at Triple-A Columbus, but the other three are all throwing like they did a year ago.

Bauer started the season off as well as any pitcher in the game before a couple rough outings made some wonder if he was really turning the corner toward being a top starter. His last few starts have answered that question, a bit. The third overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft has been almost as good as Kluber in his last three starts. In that time, Bauer has allowed just three earned runs, pitching into the eighth inning in all three outings. Bauer now stands at 4-1 on the season with a very good 3.02 ERA.

Carlos Carrasco, who like Kluber received a long-term contract this past spring, also had tough stretch of outings. That could partly be explained by getting hit with a line drive to the face in his second start of the season. A shot like that would faze most pitchers.

Like Kluber and Bauer, Carrasco has rebounded quite nicely on the last couple of turns through the rotation. He has now put together back-to-back starts in which he has combined to allow three earned runs in 14 innings.

Carrasco had one of the bigger starts of the season for the Tribe yesterday. Coming off two straight losses to the Rangers, on the heals of a six-game winning streak, the Indians needed to get back on the plus side. A day after Texas ransacked Cleveland pitching on Tuesday, Carrasco limited the Rangers to one run in eight innings on Wednesday as the Tribe won 12-3. Carrasco was stopper that a team needs in its No. 2 starter. He now stands at 6-4 with a 4.24 ERA.

As for Salazar, his toughest road came in spring training when he was horrible and went from penciled-in Tribe starter to the Columbus rotation to begin 2015. He worked his way back up and in eight starts has been pretty good at 5-1 and a 3.65 ERA. He really has had only one bad start, two weekends ago in Texas. However, he has rebounded with two solid outings since.

The Indians started the season 10-21. That was their record the evening Kluber took the mound against the Cardinals. The pitching, overall, was not anywhere near the heights that it hit last year nor the heights expected for this season. Though that could be hung on all the starters, getting the rotation clicking often begins with ace. Kluber certainly began it on the 13th. Since that date, the Tribe has gone 11-4.

At 21-25 Cleveland is still a ways off from the contention many expected for this season. However, the Indians are in far better position now than they were just two weeks ago. That is thanks, largely, to the team’s top four starters.

Right now the big achilles heel is the No. 5 starter. House could get back to Cleveland and work back to where he was last year, but he seemed a long way off from that in April. Shaun Marcum showed promise in his first two outings – one in relief and one as a starter – before getting hammered by the Rangers on Monday.

Last year, when the Indians were going strong in the season’s final two months it was with a rotation that was going well almost every night. All five starters were on a roll. For now, the team will take getting four of the five going. There are teams that would kill to have four starters they could count on and the Indians do seem to have that, at the very least.

Kluber, it would appear, is back to his award-winning form. He is again leading the rotation as the unquestioned ace. Like last year, the rest of the rotation seems to be falling in line, That can only mean better hopes of winning for the Indians and can only help get the team closer to where it hoped to be and further from where it was in the middle of May.

Photo: Andrew A. Nelles/Associated Press

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