In his defense of the American League Cy Young Award, Corey Kluber looked a shell of his former self to begin the 2015 season.
It certainly was not entirely his fault. Through his first seven games, the Indians had been held winless and he took the loss in five games. While his 5.04 ERA in that stretch gave him a deserving chunk of the blame, the 18 runs of offense provided by his Cleveland teammates were enough to say that the losing skid was a team effort.
Kluber took the mound on May 13th with a little something to prove to himself, his teammates and fans, and the rest of game of baseball. And prove it did he ever.
Through the first month of the season, Kluber averaged just two runs of support per start, a number historically low for a pitcher in his first outings after winning the top pitching honor in the league the season before. That depressingly low support was, at that point of a season, a record-low-tying amount for an AL Cy winner in his defense season. Incidentally enough, the other pitcher was Gaylord Perry, the first Cy winner in Indians history, who three different times in his April starts in 1973 was given zero runs of support by Cleveland while getting a combined 12 runs in the other three starts in the month.
Kluber was also chasing after the wrong kind of history by not earning a win before the month of April had ended and by starting out with a seven-game winless skid. It had been five years since a reigning winner was held without a W for that long to open a year. Only three starting pitchers had ever needed more than seven games to notch their first win after winning the Cy – Zack Greinke, Frank Viola, and Jim Lonborg – but the latter only needed three starts after making six relief appearances in 1968, after his season started at the end of May.
Kluber took the ball for his eighth start of the season and his fourth start at home as the Indians hosted the St. Louis Cardinals at Progressive Field.
It was a quiet first for Kluber, who struck out a pair, but plunked Matt Holliday with a pitch that would ultimately end his day. It seemed almost unfathomable that the Indians gave him a pair of runs in the bottom of the frame, given the poor run support provided all season, as two walks were followed by back-to-back RBI-singles from Brandon Moss and David Murphy to give the Indians a 2-0 lead against St. Louis Cardinals pitcher John Lackey. Both runs would be key.
Kluber motored along, striking out a batter in the second and the side in order in the third. He kept that trend going in the fourth, when he pushed his consecutive strikeout total to six straight by striking out Matt Carpenter, Pete Kozma, and Jhonny Peralta in order in the fourth.
The Indians offense had racked up a couple of extra hits through the fourth, but the score stood still at 2-0. More notably, Indians manager Terry Francona was ejected by home plate umpire Mike Everitt after Jason Kipnis was hit by a Lackey pitch.
Everitt issued warnings to both sides, which got Francona out of the dugout and heated in a hurry. He was given the quick hook after arguing that Lackey’s pitch was intentional and that he should have been ejected then.
“I knew if I went out there he was going to throw me out,” said Francona postgame. “I wanted him [Everitt] to tell me he wasn’t throwing at Kip. I said, ‘Just tell me.’ And he wouldn’t. That’s when I said some things I probably shouldn’t have. He still hasn’t answered my question. I think if he would have answered it, he would have answered differently because I called the pitch to Millsy [bench coach Brad Mills] when he got hit and I’m not that good.”
Kipnis would be hit by another pitch in the sixth by reliever Randy Choate, who was not ejected after hitting the first batter he faced in relief. Kipnis would single in his next at bat in the eighth and offered the Cardinals dugout an honorary bat flip in their general direction while running to first base.
A flyout by Jason Heyward to begin the fifth ended Kluber’s streak of strikeouts, but he picked up where he left off by striking out Jose Molina and Matt Adams for his tenth and eleventh Ks of the game. With the strikeout of Adams, Kluber had struck out each spot in the Cardinals batting order at least once, and had struck out each batter faced in the contest with the exception of Holliday, who had left injured after one at bat.
Kluber struck out Mark Reynolds and Peter Bourjos in the sixth and brought a no-hitter into the seventh inning when he struck out Carpenter and Kozma again. With history looming just seven outs away, former Indian Peralta knocked a single up the gut for the first and only blemish on Kluber’s scorecard. Just the second Cardinal batter to reach base, Peralta was stranded at first as Heyward struck out swinging to end the “threat” with Kluber’s 16th strikeout of the night.
“He did me a favor by going 2-0 against me,” said Peralta following the Cardinals loss. “I was looking for a fastball and he threw one right down the middle. He has unbelievable stuff. I was talking to Carlos Santana and he said, ‘He looks like he did last year’”.
Still with no additional run support, Kluber headed back to the mound in the eighth to defend his 2-0 lead. A strikeout of Molina, a line out by Adams, and the third strikeout of the night by Reynolds made for a 12-pitch inning, but it would prove to be the last for the Indians ace. At 113 pitches, he had thrown a season high and was removed by Mills, who had taken over for Francona after his ejection.
Kluber ended his evening facing just two over the minimum, allowing one hit and one hit batter while striking out a career-high 18 batters in eight innings of work. He struck out at least one batter in each inning of the game.
Cody Allen took the mound in the ninth and worked a three-out save, striking out a 19th Cardinals hitter to lead off the inning.
The electric win finally ended Kluber’s win drought. It also put him in a special place in Indians history.
His 18 strikeouts were the most by an AL pitcher since Clemens in 1998.
He tied the franchise record for the most strikeouts in a nine inning game. Bob Feller had previously set that mark in 1938 and the new Feller exhibit at Progressive Field had opened prior to this night’s game. Luis Tiant holds the club record with 19 strikeouts, done on July 3rd, 1968, but he needed ten innings to do so.
He fell just two strikeouts short of matching the Major League record set by Clemens and matched by Kerry Wood later of 20 strikeouts.
It was the second time since 1900 that a team had 19 strikeouts or more while allowing one hit or fewer (Chicago Cubs; Wood with 20 strikeouts and one hit allowed in 1998).
Using the Game Score statistic created by Bill James to evaluate starts, Kluber’s effort came in at a 98. Only eleven nine inning games have ever topped the 100 mark and Kluber’s was the 45th game scoring 98 or more since 1914. He is the only pitcher on that list who pitched just eight innings. Wood’s 20-strikeout game on May 5th, 1998, is the top scoring game at 105.
“Any time that you throw your name in there with Bob Feller, that’s obviously very humbling and a great accomplishment,” Kluber said. “More so important is obviously getting the win.”
“I think we got a taste of why he won the Cy Young last year,” Cardinals third baseman Carpenter said after the game. “His numbers this season don’t reflect how good of a pitcher he is. He was as good, if not better, than anybody I’ve ever faced in the big leagues.”
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer