With their backs against the wall and all of their chips on the table, the Cleveland Indians threw down their ace. They then went back to their trump card over and over again in atypical situations to do everything that they could to win the biggest hand that the organization had been dealt in 20 years.
When the Cleveland starting rotation broke down in the final month of the season, it was the trusty right arm of Indians starter Corey Kluber that helped the team push through the playoffs and into the World Series. Without his heroics, the memorable matchup between the Indians and the Chicago Cubs might not have even happened.
The right-hander was coming off of a trying season, one in which he flourished in some pitching categories, but came up on the losing side of the ledger in a career-worst 16 outings. His American League Cy Young defense from his victory in 2014 did not go as planned, as he finished the season with a 9-16 record. His 3.49 ERA showed that he was able to hold the opposition close and that his pitching mark, long since an inadequate measure of a pitcher’s worth, was more due to the lacking support from a scuffling offense around him. He logged the second-most innings and strikeouts of his career, cut back on his hit and walk rate from his award-winning season the year prior, posted a career-best 1.05 WHIP, and led the Majors with four complete games.
Kluber, who turned 30 on April 10, had something to prove to those who looked solely at his record as an indication of the type of pitcher that he was at the front of the Indians rotation in 2015. But a slow start to his 2016 campaign had some wondering about what Kluber would provide for the team over the year.
Kluber was hit with losses in each of his first three outings, including an ugly 6-0 defeat against the New York Mets on April 17 when he was charged with all six runs on nine hits and a walk over six innings. But he turned around the 0-3 start with a 6.16 ERA behind a dominating effort in Detroit his next time out as he allowed just one run on two hits, did not walk a batter, and struck out ten in eight strong innings as the team rolled to a 10-1 win. He followed it with another quality start to close out his month as the tides began to turn for the veteran.
He made six starts in May and had mixed results at times. He opened the month with another dismantling of the Tigers, throwing a complete game four-hitter for his second win of the season. But back-to-back losses, including a two and two-thirds outing in Houston when he was charged with five runs, dropped him to 2-5 and left his ERA sitting at an uncharacteristically high 4.30. He responded with consecutive strong starts against Boston and Chicago on the road, striking out 15 and allowing just three earned runs in 14 2/3 innings, but was tagged for six runs on eight hits over seven innings in a loss to Texas to close out the month.
As the weather warmed, so did Kluber. He made five starts in June, going 4-1 with a 2.19 ERA, a 0.70 WHIP, and held opposing hitters to a .150 batting average while striking out 37 and walking seven. He threw his final two complete games of the season, including a three-hit shutout of Tampa Bay on June 21.
Kluber’s last rough start came on July 3, when he allowed five runs in three and two-thirds innings as the Indians dropped a 17-1 shellacking in the fourth game in Toronto against the Blue Jays. Despite the tough game, he was named later in the week as a replacement on the American League All-Star team and was the pitcher of record in the game with a scoreless second inning.
From there, Kluber was on cruise control. Over his next 13 starts, he went 9-1, left three starts after seven innings with no earned runs allowed, threw nine straight quality starts, and struck out a season-high eleven on August 31. His 5-0 record with a 2.43 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in six August starts earned him the AL Pitcher of the Month award. He was rolling right through September when he exited injured after four innings in Detroit on September 26 on the day the Indians clinched the AL Central Division.
While the groin injury he sustained in the start shelved him for the rest of the regular season and pushed him back a game in the ALDS against Boston, he was at peak form through the postseason when the Indians were in dire need of anything that they could get from their heavily damaged starting rotation.
Kluber threw seven scoreless innings and allowed just three hits in a victory over the Red Sox in Game 2. He made two starts against Toronto in the ALCS, throwing six and one-third scoreless innings against the Blue Jays in a 2-0 win in Game 1 before returning to the mound on short rest while giving up just two runs over five innings in a Game 4 loss. He was magnificent in Game 1 of the World Series against the Cubs, throwing six scoreless innings of four-hit baseball while striking out nine. Again on short rest in Game 4, he allowed just one run over six innings with six strikeouts in a second World Series win and was back out on the mound again for Game 7, where he gutted out four more innings on short rest while giving up four runs on six hits in the heartbreaking defeat.
Kluber’s final numbers in the regular season included a career-high tying 18 wins, a 3.14 ERA, and a 1.06 WHIP. He compiled his third straight season with 200+ innings pitched and 200+ strikeouts. He threw three complete games and his two shutouts were tops in the league. The efforts led to a third place finish in the AL Cy Young voting behind Boston’s Rick Porcello and Detroit’s Justin Verlander.
In his first career appearances in the playoffs, Kluber was a combined 4-1 in six starts, earning a 1.83 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 34 1/3 innings with 35 strikeouts and eight walks.
It was little surprise that Kluber was up to the task of carrying the team and pitching on short rest when the season was on the line to help pick up his wounded pitching staff and carry the team to the finish line. Without Kluber, it could have been an early playoff exit for the club after losing Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar from the postseason rotation before September had concluded. The additional injury to Trevor Bauer left just Kluber and Josh Tomlin completely healthy for the postseason. His incredible effort, coupled with the strong relief work of Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Bryan Shaw, helped make the deep run to the World Series a possibility.
In order to defend their AL pennant in 2017, the Indians will once again need to rely upon a strong starting rotation to limit the opposition. That rotation is anchored by Kluber, who will undoubtedly be hungrier than ever for a return trip to the postseason.
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