Covering the Bases: Game 24

KluberSome notes and quotes from Wednesday’s 4-0 win over the Tigers.

FIRST: Rumors of the Klubot’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

Even when you took Rajai Davis’ issues with the sun on April 17, when Corey Kluber’s ERA was not helped at all by his defense, there was cause for concern early on this year when it came to Cleveland’s ace. Through his first three outings, Kluber had a 6.16 ERA and his velocity was down noticeably from last year, when it was down from the year before.

It’s safe to say those early-April concerns have been stifled.

“Yeah, early on, I didn’t feel like I was really pitching that bad,” Kluber said. “It came down to having one big inning every game, for the most part. Really, the key for me was just trying to minimize the big innings. Those are the ones that come back to hurt you. I was trying to get back to going pitch by pitch.”

Mission accomplished.

In Cleveland’s fifth straight win over Detroit, Kluber went the distance with a 111-pitch beauty. When the righty beat the Tigers on April 23, he overwhelmed them, ending with 10 strikeouts and no walks. On Wednesday, he toyed with them, generating 16 outs via ground ball.

The kicker? Kluber’s velocity was the best it’s been this year. His average pitch speed was actually closer to his 2015 averages than the five previous starts this year. The weather is warming up and Kluber is starting to look more like himself. That’s a great sign for a Cleveland club that is working without Carlos Carrasco right now.

Both of Kluber’s wins this season have been against Detroit. In those two outings, the right-hander has 17 strikeouts, two walks and only one run allowed over 17 innings. Across his past three starts, Kluber has a 1.13 ERA to go along with a 0.58 WHIP and 23 strikeouts in 24 innings of work.

Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor said he loves playing behind Kluber when the pitcher is creating so many grounders.

“It’s fun. It keeps you in the game,” Lindor said. “It was just good that he was keeping the ball low like always. He was spotting people up. He was getting the guys to rollover to me and it was fun.”

Lindor was actually involved in eight of the 16 outs that Kluber induced with grounders. During one stretch between the sixth and eighth innings, the Tigers hit five grounders in a row to Lindor, who helped create six outs in that span. That included three consecutive 6-3 plays in the seventh.

“I was talking to [pitching coach Mickey Callaway] about it yesterday,” Kluber said. “[Lindor] hasn’t even been here for a year, but it’s almost like you take it for granted when it’s hit to him. Already. For the most part, you can count on, if it’s hit to the shortstop, it’s
going to be an out. It’s a nice feeling to have.”

“That kid’s unbelievable, man,” Indians catcher Yan Gomes agreed. “I don’t even know how many balls were hit to him, and they weren’t easy plays. But, he sure makes them look easy. That’s a big thing, having a guy like that making big plays like that.”

Gomes laughed when asked if having Detroit hit the ball to Lindor every time was part of the plan.

“I hope we can get a strategy like that going,” Gomes said with a chuckle. “Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

SECOND: Kluber said he wanted to get back to his pitch-by-pitch mentality. Well, that was sure put to the test on Wednesday.

In the second, Kluber gave up a one-out single and then had a stretch of nine straight balls (“I totally lost it.”) that led to a bases-loaded jam. Kluber threw 14 of 15 pitches for strikes in the first inning, so his lapse in command in the second (10 balls in 21 pitches) was alarming.

After a brief mound conference with Callaway, Kluber got Jose Iglesias to ground into a 3-2 fielder’s choice for the second out. He then struck out Ian Kinsler to end the inning (one of Kluber’s seven punchouts on the night).

“We all know how strong mentally he is,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

In the fourth inning, Justin Upton led off by drilling a Kluber pitch high off the center-field wall for a double. Rookie Tyler Naquin came close to making a catch, but he hit the wall awkwardly and the ball eluded his glove and dropped to the warning track. Then, Nick Castellanos singled to right, putting runners on the corners with no outs.

Before we go further, let’s flashback to April 6 against the Red Sox. Carrasco was facing a jam with runners on the corners and one out in the sixth inning in that game. He then induced a chopper from Mookie Betts to third baseman Juan Uribe, who got mixed up on the play. Uribe looked in the wrong direction, wasn’t able to hold the runner and Brock Holt scored when the third baseman finally just took the out at first base.

Now, back to Wednesday night.

Kluber got James McCann to pound a pitch into the ground and to Uribe, who made no mistakes this time around. The veteran third baseman looked Upton back to the bag and then fired the ball to second baseman Jason Kipnis, who turned the double play. Upton stayed put, rather than running home as soon as Uribe released the relay throw.

“Remember early in the [season] when he looked the wrong way?” Francona said. “That [play today] was textbook. He froze him and turned. That was a huge play at the time.”

Gomes agreed.

“That was awesome,” said the catcher. “It might go [overlooked], what he did, because all it was was he just checked him and made him stop. As soon as he made him stop, he was able to turn the double play and you saw Upton kind of just hesitate. That’s exactly what you want to get out of that.”

Kluber followed that by striking out Anthony Gose looking. Scoring threat, and inning, over.

THIRD: Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez was having some command issues of his own on Wednesday night. He walked Carlos Santana to lead off the first, but then held Cleveland to an 0-for-8 showing through the third inning. In the fourth, Sanchez walked Santana to lead things off again, and then hit Lindor on the left elbow with a pitch with one out.

Throughout April, cashing in on such an opportunity was a problem for Cleveland. This time, the Indians didn’t waste their chance. Michael Brantley came through with an RBI single, Mike Napoli delivered an RBI double and Gomes rounded out the outburst with a run-scoring two-base hit of his own. Brantley also scored on a wild pitch. Four runs — plenty for Kluber.

“Those three at-bats in a row, the three hits that inning, were huge,” Kluber said. “The first two guys that got on, they set the table. To string those three hits together, to keep building on it, was huge.”

HOME: Carlos Santana, Leadoff Man, drew a pair of walks, chipped in a single and scored a run in Wednesday’s win. Just another day in the life of one of baseball’s most unique tablesetters.

Hey, are you curious how Cleveland has done with Santana leading off? Just ask Santana.

“If you check it,” Santana said, “when I’m put in leadoff, the team has played better and we won a couple games. I think it’s like 6-1.”

Hold on…

[Checks Indians’ record with Santana leading off]

Yes, it’s 6-1.

In those seven games, Santana has turned in a .346/.452/.615 slash with five extra-base hits, six runs scored and more walks (five) than strikeouts (three). Overall this season, Santana is now batting .244/.357/.463 with a 0.6 fWAR, four home runs and more walks (14) than strikeouts (12). Stop looking at his batting average (which is only a hair below the MLB average of .249, by the way). He’s been arguably the best offensive player (135 wRC+) for the Tribe to this point this year.

“I’m feeling more comfortable,” Santana said. “I worry about my team. If we win with that lineup, I don’t have a problem.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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