CLEVELAND -- Corey Kluber was focused soley on the fifth inning. Indians manager Terry Francona had his eye on the ace pitcher's future.
In Kluber's first start in nearly three weeks, Francona lifted the pitcher after only four innings, setting a bullpen meltdown in motion that would sink the Tribe in an 8-4 loss to the Royals on Thursday night. Kluber wanted to stay on the mound, especially given Cleveland's precarious positioning in the American League Wild Card picture, but Francona had made up his mind.
"I might've been overprotective," Francona said. "If that's the case, I don't know. I don't want to apologize for it. I just think that after being down for [19 days], I just thought that he'll be better, and he'll be better suited now to start pitching like he can and not have to think about it.
"He wanted to go back out. I just thought it was in his best interest, and I think I have an obligation to keep an eye on guys like that."
Kluber -- the AL's reigning Cy Young Award winner -- had not started for the Indians since Aug. 29 due to a right hamstring strain. He sustained the injury while running conditioning drills during the team's trip to Toronto at the start of this month, when the team was coming off a winning streak that helped set its September surge up the standings in motion.
Talk about bad timing.
"All of the games count the same," Kluber said. "But it's more frustrating having it happen now than earlier on, from the standpoint that we are trying to fight to get into the playoffs. Like I said, every game, they all count the same in the end, so it would be frustrating regardless of when it was."
With the loss to Kansas City, the Indians dropped to 72-73 and sit four games back of the AL's second Wild Card spot, which is currently occupied by Houston. Cleveland remains only three games back of the Astros (77-70) in the loss column.
Kluber was charged with three runs (two earned) in his four innings, in which he struck out five and issued no walks. A throwing error by rookie third baseman Giovanny Urshela to start the second inning helped ignite a three-run push in the frame for Kansas City. All three runs came across on a three-run homer by Omar Infante, who ended the night with three hits and seven RBIs.
"The pitch to Infante was a mistake," Kluber said. "I tried to go down and away and left it up and over the middle. Aside from that, four ground-ball base hits. I didn't feel like I was battling or anything out there."
When Francona informed Kluber that he was done for the night, the right-hander had logged only 61 pitches. It was similar to the way the manager handled the comeback of Carlos Carrasco, who was pulled after 58 pitches when he returned from a two-week layoff earlier this month. The Indians trailed, 3-2, when Kluber was pulled, but the bullpen allowed five runs.
In Francona's view, protecting both pitchers -- Cleveland's Nos. 1-2 starters -- with the bigger picture in mind outweighed trying to squeeze one more inning out of them in their return starts.
"I just think it's the right thing to do," Francona said.
Kluber did not necessarily agree on Thursday night, but he was not about to argue with his manager.
"I tried to talk him into letting me go back out," Kluber said. "But I also understand his point of view of not wanting me to push it to where it's going to make things worse. So I'm not going to question him. I tried to state my case, and ultimately he makes the call, so it is what it is."