CLEVELAND — Indians ace Corey Kluber had just won the Cy Young Award. But even on one of the biggest nights of his professional life, he refused to make a fuss. So, early in 2015, he sat on the dais in a New York ballroom and waited for his turn to speak, vowing that his acceptance speech would last less than a minute.
He made his own self-imposed cut-off: 57 seconds.
The bright lights of the 2016 World Series did nothing to change Kluber’s no-nonsense approach. His robotic demeanor on the mound has earned him the nickname “Klubot.” And in Game 1 on Tuesday night, a 6-0 win over the Cubs, the Klubot methodically showed why he stands at the center of the Indians’ roadmap to victory.
“We need him,” said manager Terry Francona, who set himself up to use Kluber on short rest for Game 4 and again in Game 7 if necessary. “We are going to need him more.”
In six-plus shutout innings, a stone-faced Kluber staged a master class in precision until was pulled after 88 pitches with plenty of gas in the tank. The move will make it easier for him to bounce back on short rest.
“Any time you have potentially Corey Kluber three out of seven days, I’ll take our chances,” backup catcher Chris Gimenez said.
Kluber fooled the Cubs with a spring-loaded two-seamer that he started out of the zone before darting back over the plate. Late movement rendered hitters unable to react.
“When he’s on, he’s on,” Gimenez said. “Tonight was one of those nights. When he gets a feel for that ball, running that ball back to the outside part of the plate, that’s dang near impossible to hit. As a hitter, you see that ball start six to eight inches outside. They shut it down, [think] it’s a ball. The fact that it runs back darn near to the middle of the plate, it’s like, all you can do is tip your cap to the guy.”
Kluber became the first pitcher in World Series history to record eight strikeouts through his first three innings. He finished with nine overall, five of those looking, a testament to the late life that he has learned to command.
Four of his punchouts came on his two-seamer. It’s the weapon that once jumpstarted a stalled career in the minors, where Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said there had been talk of turning the righty into a reliever. Now, not only does Kluber own a Cy Young Award from 2014, but the 30-year-old represents the Indians’ best chance of stunning the Cubs.
Kluber is a bona fide ace on a team that has clawed to within three victories of their first World Series title since 1948. They have done so despite a rotation clobbered by injuries. But what the Indians lack in depth, they can overcome by Francona running out his best starter as many times as he can in the World Series.
“I’ll pitch whenever he asks me to,” said Kluber, who improved to 3-1 with a 0.74 ERA in the playoffs. “I think at this point in time, it’s all about doing whatever we can to get four wins before they do. If that means pitching on short rest, then I’m more than willing to do that. I don’t think you’d find anybody who would turn down a chance to go out there and pitch right now.”
Few managers would pull their ace in a World Series game after a relatively light evening of work. But few managers have the luxury of an uber-reliever such as Andrew Miller, who inherited a 3-0 lead and made it stand up.
For the first time this postseason, the former Yankee looked human, requiring a season-high 46 pitches to get through two scoreless innings. He admitted that it was a “grind.” For only the second time this year, Miller walked a lefthanded batter, a sign of his troubles. But he nevertheless worked through his issues and promptly pronounced himself available for Game 2.
“We’ll have to be smart about the way we use him probably but you don’t rule anything out in the postseason,” Callaway said. “You’ve seen it with [Madison] Bumgarner and guys like that, they come back and pitch when you don’t think they will. [Clayton] Kershaw’s done it. I expect he’s going to be available if we need him.”
Even though he’s not a starter, Miller has been every bit as impactful during these playoffs, unscored upon in his 13 2/3 innings. And his ability to pitch multiple innings in the middle of games gives Francona the ultimate insurance policy, especially if he leans on Kluber.
The righthander has started on short rest just once in his career, a Game 4 loss in the American League Championship Series against the Blue Jays. He gave up two runs in five innings and he was clearly not the same guy as he was on Tuesday night against the Cubs. But he was good enough. And with Miller looming in the bullpen to pick up the slack, the Indians gladly would take a similar outing from Kluber.
“We’re going to ride him as hard as we can,” Miller said.
Francona hinted at starting Kluber in Game 4, but he talked around a firm declaration. Not that one was needed. Kluber’s workload was enough to make it clear that the Cubs would see him again shortly.
“Anytime you can save some bullets, that’s going to help,” Callaway said. “I don’t think Tito necessarily made the move for that reason, but it’s another good push in the right direction to go ahead and bring in Miller at the time. So, it does help Kluber come back early if we need him to.”
By their actions in Game 1, the Indians confirmed what they believe is their most direct path toward joining the Cavaliers as Cleveland’s newest world champions. Yes, Miller will likely assist. But the whole thing hinges upon the Klubot.