Pain Could Bring Future Gain For Kluber and Indians

No player or team ever hopes or wishes for an injury. However, it may come to be that Corey Kluber‘s recent stay on the disabled list was actually something of a blessing in disguise for the Cleveland Indians and the ace of their rotation.

The 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner was put on the shelf on May 3, a day after exiting a start against the Tigers early with a lower back strain.

Questions persisted throughout the offseason about what kind of shape Cleveland’s No. 1 starter would be in after pitching more innings in 2016 than ever before. It was not just the quantity, but the fact that he was pitching on short rest, in high-pressure situations, and carrying a beleaguered starting pitching staff in October all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.

Kluber said, all through spring training, that he felt good. There was talk from Tribe manager Terry Francona that the Indians would open the regular season without their ace just to give him more rest after his postseason heroics.

He started six playoff games, including three in the World Series, going 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA. He made three of his postseason starts on three days’ rest. One was in the ALCS and two were in the Fall Classic. With three of Cleveland’s starters out with injuries, the workload was a matter of need for the Tribe. His extensive usage and overall success lifted the short-handed Tribe to within one run of its first World Series crown since 1948.

Cleveland ended up having Kluber on the Opening Day roster and starting the season lid-lifter in Texas on April 3. That first start did little to show that he was ready to face the rigors of a long regular season just five months removed from the Tribe’s long, winding playoff journey. The Indians got the 8-5 win, but Kluber was clearly not himself in surrendering five runs in six innings.

His next five starts saw a mixture of results. Two were bad, two were okay, and one was great. A complete game shutout against the White Sox on April 21, his fourth start of the year, seemed to indicate Kluber was back to being the great pitcher the Tribe had come to count on the last few years. He gave up three runs in seven frames against a strong Houston lineup in his next outing. Then came the disaster that was May 2. The Tigers were pounding him to the tune of five runs in three innings when he could no longer pitch through his lingering back problems.

At the time, Kluber was put on the 10-day disabled list with the hope he may only miss one start. It turned out to be more as he returned a month later this past Thursday. When he went on the DL, Kluber was 3-2 with a very un-Kluber-like 5.06 ERA. The up and down results were likely due, in large part, to the back pain he said he had felt since spring training. Of course, his physically demanding 2016 campaign may very well have helped create some of the wear and tear as well.

Sometimes athletes just need a breather and time to get fully healthy. If Kluber’s return Thursday against the Oakland A’s was any indication, his time off may have been well worth it. He tossed six strong innings, shutting out the Bay Area club on two hits, striking out ten, and issuing just one walk. He looked like he was in midseason form despite the one month layoff. He pitched just one minor league rehab game.

Granted, the Athletics are not exactly the 1927 Yankees when it comes to offensive fire power. However, you have to start somewhere. The way Kluber was pitching on Thursday, it would not have mattered if the Astros and their A.L. best offense had been taking swings against him. Nobody was hitting the Tribe ace in his return to the mound.

This is good news for an Indians team that has been searching for consistency all year in the starting five. Carlos Carrasco, to this point, has been the lone starter to have consistent success all season. Mike Clevinger has pitched well also, but was only promoted after Kluber was put on the DL, so it remains to be seen if the second-year Major Leaguer can continue in his positive development. Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin have both been better recently, but inconsistent overall this season. Danny Salazar, a 2016 All-Star, was just demoted to the bullpen.

A true ace can often have a calming influence on the rest of the rotation and get things humming in the right direction. When Kluber is going right, it is a pretty good bet that the Indians will have a chance to win when he toes the rubber, if the offense can come through. When Kluber, along with Carrasco at the top of the rotation, can get a win and reel off multiple wins in a row, it lessens the burden on the guys in the bottom of the rotation. Starters 3-5 can simply pitch to their strengths without having to feel like world beaters and getting out of their comfort zones.

That the Indians have been able to stay above water, record-wise, and near the top of the A.L. Central Division without their ace is a testament to how good the roster is as a whole. However, the team will not take flight without Kluber being his ace and Cy Young-winning self.

With Kluber back and seemingly to form, the rest of the rotation should settle in nicely behind him. He was certainly missed for a month. However, if he is finally back to feeling as good as possible, the time off should pay off in the long run. A little rest in May could go a long way when the games really count in September and, as Tribe fans hope, October.

Photo: David Banks/Getty Images

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