CLEVELAND -- Corey Kluber's American League Cy Young Award campaign concluded with five innings for the Indians on Saturday night. This was not an outing gone awry. Kluber had done enough. He had hoisted Cleveland's pitching staff on his back during a historic season and helped carry his club to the AL's best record.
"If we're to get where we want," Indians manager Terry Francona said after a 2-1 loss to the White Sox, "he's going to obviously carry a big load."
A year ago, Kluber did that for the Tribe, setting a single-postseason club record for starts (six), including three during the World Series loss at the hands of the Cubs. This season, Cleveland's ace returned with the mission of once again powering the Indians back to the playoffs in hopes of ending the franchise's 68-year championship drought. Kluber has succeeded through the regular-season portion of that quest.
Against the White Sox, Kluber allowed one run over his five frames, which were unspectacular, relatively speaking. The right-hander finished this season with an 18-4 record and a Major League-best 2.25 ERA. That makes Kluber the Indians' first ERA champion since Mike Garcia achieved the feat in 1949. Kluber is the sixth pitcher in Cleveland history to win baseball's ERA title.
Even after being shelved for most of May with a back issue, Kluber ended with 203 2/3 innings, in which he struck out 265 and walked just 36, giving him baseball's best strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.4) among qualified pitchers. Since returning from the disabled list on June 1, Kluber turned in a 1.62 ERA over 166 1/3 innings. During that 23-start span, the ace posted a 36.4-percent strikeout rate and generated swinging strikes 17.5 percent of the time.
"The DL was like more of a rest for him," outfielder Jason Kipnis said. "He's been outstanding. I think he's far and away the Cy Young [winner] this year."
Earlier this season, Red Sox ace Chris Sale was a heavy favorite to win the Cy Young Award. Sale still looks like Kluber's biggest competition for the AL's top pitching accolade, especially given the lefty's status as the MLB leader in WAR (7.7, per FanGraphs) and strikeouts (308). Kluber's four-month surge, however, combined with Cleveland's rise to the top of the AL standings, now give the Tribe ace a strong case.
If Kluber, who won the Cy Young Award in 2014, were to finish first in balloting, he would become the first pitcher in Indians history to take home more than one.
"The goal is to be consistent," Kluber said. "To go out there and hopefully perform to where the team can rely on you each time you go out there. It's not always going to be the case, but when you hit a rough spot, you work out of it as quick as possible."
For Kluber, the rough spot was a 5.06 ERA six starts into the year, when the back issue flared up and sent him to the shelf.
Needless to say, Kluber recovered nicely.
"He's been quite a leader. He sets the tone for our pitching staff," Francona said. "It's hard to imagine somebody better. When the best pitcher, not only on just your team but probably the league, the way he goes about his business, that's to me what a leader is. He may not be the loudest guy, but boy does he lead by example."
On Saturday night, Kluber ended his campaign after 81 pitches.
The pitcher is more interested in the Commissioner's Trophy than the Cy Young Award.
"He took it to another level, man," catcher Yan Gomes said. "He's carried our pitching staff to where we need to go. I know later on he'll sit back and talk about this season, but we're still not done yet."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.