Filling in for Kluber, righty flirts with no-no of mighty Astros
By Richard Justice
HOUSTON -- Mike Clevinger's teammates circled him on the mound and offered congratulations with taps on the chest and words of encouragement when they saw Indians manager Terry Francona head their way.
Moments later, Clevinger handed the baseball to his skipper, officially ending his best day in the big leagues and one that offered a glimpse of the pitcher the Indians believe the 26-year-old right-hander can be.
He changed speeds, threw strikes and remained aggressive in tossing seven-plus shutout innings as the Indians beat the Astros, 3-0, on Saturday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.
Sometimes, the game is just that simple. As Astros outfielder Josh Reddick said, "You just tip your cap to him and move on to the next day. We couldn't figure him out."
"He was terrific," Francona said. "You see a young pitcher come up and do something like that, and it makes that glass look a lot more than half full. He has this in him. There's a lot to like."
Clevinger flirted with a very special afternoon, no-hitting the Astros through six innings before Jose Altuve led off the bottom of the seventh with a single. Clevinger allowed only one more hit, a leadoff single by Evan Gattis in the eighth.
"It was in my mind," Clevinger said. "You see a zero up there with this kind of ball team. It's something you notice."
In the end, though, he gave the Indians exactly what they needed.
"He had a plan, and he executed it," Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor said. "He located his fastball. He was right on. We won because of him today. Without him, we don't win. He was impressive."
With Indians ace Corey Kluber on the disabled list at least another week or two rehabbing a sore back, Clevinger was given an opportunity to prove himself. In his first two starts, he walked nine in 10 total innings.
On Saturday, though, he took a step in the right direction, and so did the Indians. Clevinger worked hard on his stamina in the offseason, gaining 17 pounds to do a better job of maintaining his stuff later in games.
As for throwing strikes, that's something he'll have to do if he hopes to contribute to whatever the Indians accomplish in this season of high expectations.
"Staying aggressive with two strikes," he said. "I think that was the biggest key. It was more about trusting my stuff even with two strikes in the zone."
Francona called a meeting of his starting pitchers on Friday afternoon, and as Clevinger said, "Tito [Francona] said it best. It looked like we were going out there hoping we'd get good results again. You need to go out there and do it with intent, knowing you're going to stay aggressive and get the results because of the work we've put in. Just know we're going to be good."
Clevinger opened the game by striking out George Springer on a 92-mph fastball. He established his off-speed stuff early in the game as well, eventually getting four of his eight strikeouts on off-speed pitches and two on sliders.
"He did a great job today," Astros DH Carlos Beltran said. "He was able to locate pitches for a strike. The changeup was a good one, and he was spotting in and out. He basically kept us off-balance until Altuve got the hit."
These victories matter to the Indians in a larger sense. In a season challenged by injuries, slumps and a hiccup or two, they arrived at Minute Maid Park on Friday a game above .500 at 20-19.
But they've beaten the Astros, the team with the best record in baseball at 29-14, twice. And in 18 innings, they've held baseball's second-highest scoring offense to three runs.
"We're not off to the start we think we're capable of," Indians reliever Andrew Miller said, "and this [Houston] team is as good as there is in baseball. If we accomplish what we think we can, we're going to have to see 'em again. They're that good."
In the visitors' clubhouse, Clevinger refused to bite on this being any kind of larger personal statement for himself. This season is about something more.
"This is the Cleveland Indians making a statement," he said. "We might have hit a little lull, but we're a good ball team and we're a team to still look out for."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.