Covering the Bases: Game 155

Kluber921Final: Indians 7, Twins 2

FIRST: Remember when there was some concern that Corey Kluber, who had crossed into uncharted waters in terms of innings in a single year, was possibly fighting late-season fatigue? Yeah, he’s feeling just fine. Just ask the White Sox, Astros and Twins.

In the four starts since Kluber surrendered five runs in 2.2 innings against the Tigers on Sept. 1 — never mind the defensive miscues that cost him dearly in that swiftly-derailed outing — he has returned to form in a major way. In the 32.1 innings during that span (that’s more than eight innings on average), the right-hander is 4-0 with a 1.39 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 43 strikeouts and only three walks.

“He’s pitching with confidence,” Indians center fielder Michael Bourn said. “But he’s also calm while he’s pitching.”

No kidding.

Minnesota wound up on the wrong side of history because of Kluber’s calm confidence. The pitcher racked up 14 strikeouts for the second start in a row. That has only been accomplished 15 times in the past 100 seasons and only by nine Major League pitchers. The last to do it? Some guy named Randy Johnson in 2004. The other names on that list include Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Jose Rijo, Dwight Gooden, Mickey Lolich, Bob Gibson and Sam McDowell. Pedro holds the record with three such outings in a row in 1999. McDowell did it twice for the Tribe in 1968.

Kluber shrugged off the historical footnotes.

“When the year’s over,” he said, “that’s stuff that you’ll take a second to look at and appreciate. But, right now, it’s not important. The important thing right now is that we got the win. That’s what we need to keep going. It’s a result of the hard work that you put in, but I think you wait until the end of the year to kind of step back and look at it.”

On the season, Kluber now has 258 strikeouts (most in the American League), which puts him 10th all-time on Cleveland’s single-season list. Before this year, only Bob Feller, Herb Score, Luis Tiant and McDowell had achieved at least 250 strikeouts in a season. Feller holds the record with 348 in 1946. Kluber also joins McDowell (four times), Feller (once) and score (once) as the only pitchers in team history to have at least 10 double-digit strikeout games in one season

Kluber has 20 starts with at least eight strikeouts and 13 with at least nine strikeouts.

“Those are a byproduct of a really good pitcher,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of all the strikeout feats. “I think you go through periods where those things happen. Coming into the game, the Twins have had a really good approach to him. You look at the matchups and they have guys that have found ways to get hits off him — they hit the ball the other way — but he established his fastball right away and then he had his breaking ball. He was just really good.”

The Twins agreed.

“He has great command of three of his pitches,” Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. “He has electric stuff and is a high strikeout guy. If you get a pitch to hit, you can’t really miss it against that guy. He’s a big swing-and-miss guy. He threw me all sliders and cutters, and when he’s got that working, he’s pretty good.”

SECOND: Kluber also had a unique strikeout streak come to a close on Sunday afternoon. After striking out 14 in seven innings on Tuesday in Houston, the right-hander had 13 strikeouts through six innings against the Twins. What was unique about that was the fact that Kluber had at least two strikeouts in each of those 13 consecutive innings.

I don’t know yet where that streak ranks in terms of history (the Indians called the Elias Sports Bureau to hopefully get an assist with the answer), but I can tell you how it ended. In the seventh inning, Kluber induced a leadoff flyout off the bat of Chris Herrmann, who had two doubles earlier in the game. Jordan Schafer then followed with a popped-up bunt, which sent the ball arcing into foul territory.

Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall hustled in, ran into foul ground and made a spectacular diving catch. Way to go, Chiz, you ended Kluber’s strikeout streak.

“I’ll take the diving catch,” Kluber said with a grin.

Kluber’s 14 strikeouts, combined with the one punchout registered by reliever Nick Hagadone in the ninth inning, also helped Cleveland extend its Major League-record streak of consecutive games with at least a dozen strikeouts to six games. Cleveland also has 1,391 strikeouts on the season overall, surpassing last year’s total (1,380) for a new club record. The AL and Major League record (1,428) was set by the 2013 Tigers. Cleveland should be able to chase that record down, but the Rays (1,385) are also in the running this year.

“I think it’s maybe a reflection on the kind of stuff we have on our staff,” Kluber said of the team’s high strikeout total. “I think we’ve got some guys with some good arms and some good stuff to put people away. A lot of times, when we get an opportunity to put guys away, we take advantage of it.”

THIRD: Kluber and left fielder Michael Brantley have provided the Indians with two elite talents and clear-cut candidates (at least worthy of a top-three finish) for some season-end awards. I’ll save Kluber’s Cy Young candidacy for a post at the end of the season, when we’ll have the final numbers. As for Brantley, they should create a Mike Trout Award for the MVP runner-up in the AL. Trout has that top spot basically locked up.

Don’t even worry about WAR of wRC+, just take a moment to consider and appreciate the basic numbers that Brantley is piling up right now. After Sunday, he’s hitting .325 with 20 homers, 22 stolen bases, 43 doubles, 93 runs, 97 RBIs, 193 hits and 300 total bases. That has Brantley on the cusp of finishing with one of the greatest all-around seasons not only in team history, but in AL history.

“He’s always hungry for more,” Bourn said. “He comes to work hard every day. I think that’s a plus. I think he’s focused on being one of the best players in the game. He’s having a tremendous year, but when you want to be considered in the top category, you’ve got to be able to do it year after year after year. I think he has that potential.”

In Cleveland history, there have only been 10 instances when a player ended with at least a .320 average to go along with at least 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 200 hits. Carlos Baerga last accomplished the feat in 199. Before Baerga, it hadn’t been done since 1953 (Al Rosen). If you add at least 40 doubles to that statistical line, you have to go back to 1936 (Hal Trosky) to find the last season of that kind. If you add the 20 stolen bases, well, you won’t find any player in Cleveland history with that kind of year.

In AL history, Jacoby Ellsbury (2011) is the only player in history to hit .320 or better with at least 20 homers, 20 steals, 40 doubles, 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 200 hits. Brantley could be the second to do that, if he gets three RBIs, seven hits and seven runs in the final six games. If you remove the 20-homer requirement, the others on the AL list with Ellsbury are Gee Walker (1937), Charlie Gehringer (1929), Geroge Sisler (1920, 1922), Ty Cobb (1911, 1917), Home Run Baker (1912) and Nap Lajoie (1901).

HOME: … is where the Indians are heading. If Cleveland is going to complete this miracle postseason chase, it’ll be over the next six games (seven, including the final three outs of the Aug. 31 suspended game with the Royals) at Progressive Field. Beginning Monday, the Indians have a crucial three-game, three-out series with Kansas City, which currently sits 3 1/2 games ahead of the Tribe for one of the AL’s Wild Card spots. The A’s, Mariners and Yankees are all in the hunt, too.

“We know what’s at stake,” Bourn said. “We’ve been going for it since the beginning — there’s just more at stake in September. That’s just what it is. You’ve got win at this time to extend your time to be able to play. We’re going to give it all we’ve got each day. We’re going to try and put ourselves in a good position and hopefully we win.  We know this is pretty much our season, this last week, and we’re not going to run from it. We’re going to stand up to the competition.”

Here’s the landscape for the Wild Card contenders:

1. Oakland (up 0.5): 3 vs. LAA, 4 @ TEX
2. Kansas City (–): 3* @ CLE, 4 @ CWS
3. Seattle (1.5 GB): 4 @ TOR, 3 vs. LAA
4. Cleveland (3.5 GB): 3* vs. KC, 3 vs. TB
5. New York (4.5 GB): 4 vs. BAL, 3 @ BOS

“We’re looking forward to it,” Francona said of the upcoming set with the Royals. “We’ve worked hard to get to this point. Now we get to play one of the better teams in the league and it’s very meaningful. It’ll be fun.”

*plus the conclusion of the suspended game

On deck:

Royals (84-70) at Indians (81-74)
at 6:05 p.m. ET Monday at Progressive Field

–JB

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