First, the bad news: the Cleveland Indians are in a 0-2 hole in their best-of-five ALDS with the Houston Astros. They face a win-or-go-home game on Monday afternoon.
As for the good news? Well, other than the biggest game of their season being at home, it may well be that the guy on the mound could be just the guy that the Indians need to kick-start what they hope will be three straight must-win games.
No, two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber is not returning on exceedingly short rest. Nor is Cy Young candidate Carlos Carrasco. After back-to-back relief appearances, 2018 All-Star Trevor Bauer is also not taking the ball in this all-important match up.
It is none of the Tribe’s triumvirate of aces who will be on hill tomorrow afternoon. So, why have optimism against a hard-hitting Houston Astros lineup? The reason for that is actually quite simple.
Lost in the shuffle of Cleveland elite starting rotation is a 6-foot-4 righty who could well make the Indians trio of No. 1 starters into a quartet. That man is Mike Clevinger.
Clevinger, in his third season at the big league level, came into his own this season. It was his first full year as a Major League starting pitcher. He was back and forth between the rotation and bullpen in 2016 and 2017. He was a reliever for the Tribe’s postseason appearances in each of those campaigns.
This year, Clevinger made it so that the Indians had no choice but keep him in the rotation for the playoffs. He made it so that Tribe manager Terry Francona did not have to go with a three-man postseason rotation, as he did the last two seasons, and pitch starters on short rest.
In 2018, Clevinger started 32 games. He was 13-8 with a 3.02 ERA. The record would have been a lot better if not for a lack of run support. He was the fourth of Cleveland’s starters to amass 200 strikeouts this season, making the Tribe’s rotation the first in the game’s long history to boast that many starters to fan that many hitters.
Clevinger was third on the squad, behind Kluber and Bauer, in ERA. He was third, behind Kluber and Carrasco, in wins. He was fourth in strikeouts. So, again, why the hope that the Tribe’s No. 4 starter could be the elixir the club needs to get a win and hopefully get on a roll?
Quite frankly, it is because Clev has kicked it up a gear down the season’s stretch. He has been Cy-Young worthy, himself, the last two months of the season as his numbers went from those of a pitcher enjoying a breakout season to those of a pitcher who seems on the cusp of becoming ace-like in his own right.
At the end of July, Clevinger had a 3.48 ERA and 7-7 record. There was some worry that Clevinger was regressing a little as his ERA for that fourth month of the season had ballooned to 4.58. He had stellar months of April (2.56) and June (2.78), while being higher, but still adequate, in May (3.60).
Any questions as to whether or not Clevinger was fading were put to rest in August and September, when he went 6-1. He followed a great August ERA of 2.21 with an even more sensational 2.12 in September. In 11 starts during those final two months, Clevinger enjoyed nine quality starts. The two that were not in the quality category both saw him surrender just two runs in five innings. In both those games, he got in his own way with six and five walks. He still kept his team in the games and kept home plate generally free of the opposition crossing it.
Walks were always Clevinger’s Achilles heel. Other than those two games, the other nine down the stretch saw him issue three free passes or fewer. That is why he was able to get deeper into those games.
Dating to the end of July, Clevinger actually has 13 consecutive outings in which he allowed three runs or fewer. Before that he had a stretch of back-to-back starts giving up four and five runs that bloated the July ERA to what it became, he only had four other starts all year giving up more than three runs. So 26 times he took the ball, he gave up three tallies or fewer. Indeed, that is about as consistent as it can be for a starting pitcher.
Most importantly, in September, Clevinger gave up three runs in one of his five outings. Once, he gave up two, he allowed one tally twice, and did not allow a runner to score in his other appearance. He is certainly on a roll.
The Indians need Clevinger to keep going on that trajectory Monday afternoon. It is must-win. It is absolutely the biggest game of Clevinger’s young career. His postseason appearances the last two years came in relief when games were already decided. He has not faced the pressure that he will be facing tomorrow. Of course, experience in those situations can be overrated – just as was the case with Kluber, who got knocked around in Game 1 of this ALDS.
Clevinger will have the home crowd behind him tomorrow. He is going as strong as ever right now and he is healthy. Right now, Clevinger, oddly enough, may just be the exact guy that the Indians need on the mound for a high-stakes baseball game.
A little run support would also go a long way, which has been a glaring issue this postseason. However, if there is a guy who is used to pitching with a lack of runs, it is Clevinger. The Indians offense has slept through the first two games of this series, so Clev will need to be on his A-game.
One game stands between the Indians being eliminated and the Indians making this five-game ALDS interesting again. Clevinger is just the guy who can get his team on a much needed roll. He just needs to be the guy that the Indians saw all of August and September.
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