Indians' ace has rare off night, cites poor command
By William Kosileski
CLEVELAND -- Indians fans witnessed an unfamiliar sight on Friday when ace Corey Kluber walked back to the dugout in the third inning with his team trailing by three runs.
Kluber was supposed to be poised to put the Indians in command of their American League Division Series presented by Doosan against the Yankees after the Tribe's win on Thursday to open the best-of-five matchup. The Yanks had other Friday night plans.
By the time the Yankees were done, they had saddled Kluber with six runs in just 2 2/3 innings, the first such outing in his career for the AL Cy Young Award front-runner. Despite the rough outing for Kluber, the Indians rallied from an 8-3 deficit to pull out a 9-8 victory in walk-off fashion in the 13th inning to take a 2-0 lead in the series.
"When you're around 75 pitches into the third, that kind of speaks volumes," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said of Kluber's outing. "He was having trouble working ahead. Then he was having trouble finishing hitters."
All but one of the runs Kluber allowed came on homers. Gary Sanchez silenced a packed crowd at Progressive Field with a projected drive of 406 feet, according to Statcast™, to center field in the first inning, driving in Aaron Judge following his one-out walk. Kluber held the Yanks from there, but he threw 38 pitches in the process, ending the inning with an Aaron Hicks strikeout as Mike Clevinger warmed in the Tribe's bullpen.
Kluber said that he felt healthy and didn't feel anything different in his pregame bullpen session. The right-hander chalked it up to having poor command.
"I just didn't have good command," Kluber said. "I didn't execute pitches well. I threw way too many balls, and it seemed like when I did throw strikes, they were right over the heart of the plate."
The Indians erased the Yankees' early lead with a two-run rally in the bottom of the inning, and Kluber held it there with a scoreless second frame. He was one out away from thwarting a third-inning threat and stranding a runner in scoring position when three consecutive hits knocked him out of the game.
The last pitch Kluber tossed was a breaking ball over the plate to Hicks, and he pounced on it, sending it deep to right for a three-run homer.
"Right off the bat, you could tell he was fighting his command," Francona said in an in-game interview on MLB Network. "That cost him a couple runs in the first. ... And in the second inning, he started to put it together. But to see him throw that many pitches, and he couldn't put hitters away. If it was anyone else, he's probably out of there before then, but you have so much faith in Kluber."
Hicks became just the third player to homer off a Kluber curveball this year, joining the Rangers' Nomar Mazara (June 29) and the Royals' Brandon Moss (Aug. 18).
"I just made too many mistakes," Kluber said. "I left too many balls over the plate. We talked about it before, they're a good lineup, and they made me pay for it."
That was it for Kluber, charged with six runs (tying his season high) on seven hits over 2 2/3 innings for his shortest outing since May 9, 2016, against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Half of his eight outs came on strikeouts, while four balls were hit with an exit velocity over 100 mph.
By contrast, Kluber gave up just seven runs over 34 1/3 innings last postseason. Although Kluber did not look like himself, Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor applauded his efforts on the mound.
"Kluber finally looking like he's human," Lindor said. "Even though he didn't pitch as well as he does, he still gave us a chance to win. When he left, it was 6-3. That's not bad. I'll take that. He gave us a chance to win still, and he kept us in the game. He battled. He grinded out every single hitter he faced. And at the end of the day, he was one of the first ones to come out of the dugout and congratulate everybody. That shows how good of a teammate he is."
William Kosileski is a reporter for MLB.com based in Cleveland. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.