Corey Kluber smiled.
It’s not necessarily a frequent occurrence on the field (though by all accounts he is a perfectly fine fellow, he could be considered the opposite of emotive), but on Sunday, after a performance that felt three years in the making, Kluber allowed the corners of his mouth to go up in just the slightest show of triumph.
Not only did he notch his 100th career win — something he didn’t realize until he was told after the game — but he was absolutely masterful while doing it, stitching together a performance of the man that won two Cy Young Awards and had a 20-win season under his belt before an array of injuries threatened to derail his career.
The result was a 2-0 win that gave the Yankees a three-game sweep of the Tigers at Yankee Stadium — a game that was finished in a tidy 2 hours, 14 minutes, because Kluber was just that efficient, just that effective.
"He was just in command," Aaron Boone said. "He was locating. He had four pitches going with the sinker, the cutter, the breaking ball and the changeup, and when they were able to put the ball in play, largely, with the exception of a few balls on the barrel, he was off the barrel. That was a guy who was in control of the outing."
Kluber, who pitched only one inning in 2020 because of a shoulder muscle tear, allowed two singles and a walk in eight innings, striking out 10. Of the 25 changeups he threw, 13 went for swings and misses. He threw 103 pitches, 74 for strikes.
The Tigers’ Jose Urena, who went seven innings, and Gregory Soto allowed three hits and a walk, striking out nine, and retired the last 20 Yankees. Kluber and Aroldis Chapman allowed two hits and a walk, retiring 20 of the last 21 Tigers.
Kluber’s performance was vintage in the truest sense of the word: The last time he struck out as many as 10 was Sept. 24, 2018, and the last time he pitched eight innings was Sept. 18, 2018.
It also was his second strong start in a row — he gave up one run and struck out 15 in 14 2⁄3 innings in those two games — but this one exceeded his victory over the Orioles last week.
"It’s a challenge to yourself to get back to a level that you expect of yourself," Kluber said. "I try to be realistic about that it probably wasn’t going to be [something where I would] flip a switch and feel like I like to feel . . . [but] I think the more reps I get, the more comfortable it’s becoming."
Added Kyle Higashioka: "It’s really fun. It’s kind of like when, as a kid, you play a video game . . . you can throw any pitch, any spot, any count. That’s kind of how he’s working right now."
The Yankees scored their two runs in the second. Gio Urshela reached on an infield single when his soft grounder hugged the foul line and was allowed to roll all the way to third base before hitting the bag. Aaron Hicks walked and Urshela advanced to third on Mike Ford’s long fly to center. Higashioka lined a drive to leftfield that hit the chalk for an RBI double and Brett Gardner lined a sacrifice fly to rightfield that would have been an extra-base hit if not for Robbie Grossman’s athletic nab at the wall.
Kluber pitched out of trouble in the third, escaping a second-and-third, one-out jam by striking out Grossman and Jeimer Candelario.
The Yankees (14-14) reached .500 for the first time since they were 5-5 as they get set to take on the Astros in what should be a charged series beginning Tuesday. They have won eight of their last 11 games.
Though the Yankees’ offense left something to be desired, it still was a sign that maybe this team is righting itself. After two strong performances by their reclamation projects — Kluber and Jameson Taillon on Saturday — and more dominance by their bullpen, they’re able to essentially start their season anew come Tuesday.
"The first few weeks we didn’t start like we wanted. but the last week, week and a half, we’ve played a little better," Gardner said. "Hopefully that continues into May and as the weather heats up, we’ll heat up as a team."