ANAHEIM, Calif. — Corey Kluber struck out the first batter he faced Monday night and then the second.
The veteran righthander, in fact, looked like anything but a pitcher making his first big-league start in just over three months, not allowing a hit over the first 3 1/3 innings and striking out six.
And it is that element of Monday night — and not what followed in the fourth inning after Kluber opened the frame with his sixth strikeout, Shohei Ohtani looking at cutter — the Yankees, and the pitcher, focused on.
"To me, he looked really good," Gary Sanchez said through his interpreter. "We were mixing pitches, executing very well."
Added second baseman DJ LeMahieu of the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner, who had not started since leaving his May 25 start against Toronto with a right shoulder strain: "The first three innings he looked like himself ."
Kluber cruised through those first three innings, starting in the first with Angels leadoff man David Fletcher, whom he struck out on four pitches — the final one a slider. He then struck out Ohtani, the American League’s home run leader with 42, looking, also at a slider. Phil Gosselin worked a walk but Kluber got Jared Walsh to line to right to end the 19-pitch inning.
Kluber struck out Max Stassi swinging at a curveball to end the second, Jack Mayfield (who would be heard from later) swinging at a curveball to start the third and Fletcher looking at a 90-mph sinker to end the third. Kluber, on a pitch count in the range of 65-75, needed just 35 pitches to get through three.
Though LeMahieu hinted at what happened next — "it just looked like he ran out of gas a little bit," he said — Kluber said that wasn’t the case.
"I didn’t feel fatigued," the 35-year-old said, "so I’m not going to use that as an excuse."
Regardless, the fourth inning quickly unraveled after Ohtani went down looking.
Gosselin sent a sharp liner to center for the Angels first hit, the first of three straight singles, which cut the Yankees’ lead in half at 2-1. Max Stassi walked to load the bases and, after a visit from pitching coach Matt Blake, Mayfield jumped a first-pitch curveball and blasted it to left, the grand slam giving the Angels a 5-2 lead in what would eventually be an 8-7 victory. It was the second career grand slam surrendered by Kluber, the other by Kansas City’s Alex Gordon in 2013 when the pitcher was with Cleveland.
Kluber, who was 4-3 with a 3.04 ERA in 10 starts before going to the IL May 26, allowed five runs and five hits over his four innings.
But both he and the Yankees took, appropriately, a bigger picture approach to the night.
Though his fastball velocity dipped as the outing progressed — Kluber sat mostly in the 87-90 mph range — his effectiveness over the years has never been velocity-based. The movement, particularly on his breaking pitches, was there for the most part, as was his command. Kluber mostly looked the part of a starter who can help what has already been a standout rotation down the stretch.
"When you go back and look at Corey…he’s not going to light up the radar gun, but I thought he executed a lot of good breaking balls," Aaron Boone said. "It looked like from the side the depth on those pitches were really good. He was able to lock some guys up with some sinkers, which tells you it’s moving how you want it to."
For Kluber, it came down to the hanging curveball to Mayfield that clouded the evening.
"There was a lot of good to take out of tonight," Kluber said. "One pitch I wish I could have back."