In what was a beautiful, blue-skied mid-June evening in 2008, CC Sabathia took to the bump against the Minnesota Twins, knowing that he would have to be near perfect if he were to record a win for his Indians. Just months earlier, his team was one win away from the World Series but did very little in the offseason to push them over the top. Alas, he had received just two runs of support over his previous nine starts and his team was sitting six games under .500. Along with 27,000 others, I piled in to Progressive Field in hopes of seeing a win. At the time, my family had season tickets1—we sat six rows behind home plate and were often flanked by gentlemen with radar guns and stop watches. On this night, however, we were running a bit late and showed up roughly 30 minutes after the game had started. It was already the top of the fourth inning.
Watching what Sabathia did to the Minnesota Twins on that evening—a complete-game, five-hit, five-strikeout demolition—was the most dominating performance I have ever seen in person. It helped being directly behind the plate, of course, but watching the ball fly out of his hand only to seemingly appear in the catcher’s mitt without having traveled from Point A to Point B—it was artistry. The pop of the glove was reminiscient of hearing a plane fly over seconds after it happened visually. Sabathia, on this day, tossed just 106 pitches; seventy-seven of them were for strikes. He didn’t allow a base runner after the fourth inning. The lone Indians run, plated in the first inning thanks to Ryan Garko, would be all he would need. Sabathia won 19 games a season earlier, winning the American League Cy Young, yet it was this game where home plate umpire Joe West would say that it was the best he had ever seen him throw.
All of which makes what Corey Kluber did on Thursday afternoon against the Kansas City Royals that much more impressive.
Ask any casual baseball fan to name five or six pitchers who would be the most likely to fan 11 batters in a contest and see what names pour out. Cliff Lee has made a living of making hitters look silly in Philadelphia. Miami’s Jose Fernandez leads baseball in the strikeout department, so he’d be an easy bet. Felix Hernandez? Stephen Strasburg? Max Scherzer? Sure. High profile power arms galore. But Corey Kluber? The guy has had a cult following for quite some time when it comes to the hardcores and stat-friendly fans, but his emotionless, ninja-like ways have made him much of an afterthought amongst the casual fans.
With the rest of his starting rotation brethren (save for one Zach McAllister) reeling, the stoic, statuesque Kluber took the mound and completely dismantled the opposition, striking out 11 and allowing just four hits, walking none, in a complete game. In doing so, Kluber became the first Cleveland pitcher to throw a complete game while recording 11 strikeouts, no walks or earned runs since Len Barker’s much-ballyhooed perfect game in 1981. He threw just 101 pitches; seventy-five of them were for strikes.
Like many times a season ago, Kluber nearly fell victim to similar treatment to Sabathia. His team wouldn’t score a run until the fifth inning where they torched the Royals for five runs—four more than he would need. Kansas City managed just one hit off Kluber in the first four innings. He fanned five over the game’s final four frames. Wherein most pitchers fan double-digit hitters through power, Kluber diced up the Royals with incredible precision—he threw just four fastballs, relying predominantly on sinkers, sliders and cutters. He induced a dozen outs via ground ball. He had a season high mark of 71 percent of his first pitches being thrown for strikes. Thirteen percent of his pitches were swinging strikes. The Tribe never even warmed up a reliever, the bullpen phone remaining completely unused.
“That was really fun to watch,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of his starting pitcher. “He had everything working. His fastball was going both ways, change-up, location. He worked ahead and he threw a ton of strikes. That was really impressive.”
Since the season opener, Kluber and McAllister have combined to go 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP. The three other arms—ace Justin Masterson, hopeful future ace Danny Salazar, and should-have-been-ace Carlos Carrasco—are 0-5 with a 6.45 ERA and a WHIP of 1.70. Kluber, who came into this season as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter has pitched like a No. 1, producing a 2.79 ERA with 29 strikeouts and just three walks in 29 innings over his last four starts. We knew that his first few starts were littered with poor luck and poor defense, and while very few may have seen the pendulum swining back with such ferocity, to see what Kluber is capable of is an uplifting reminder that when (if?) the rest of the rotation regains their edge, just what this Indians team can be capable of.
In typical Kluber fashion, the bearded breaking ball tosser played off the importance of the win. “I really wasn’t trying to make a bigger deal out of it than going out there and getting three more outs,” he said. “Maybe that’s why it worked out.”
Wherein Sabathia had the big name, missile-like fastball and massive persona, and was eventually dealt to Milwaukee for Matt LaPorta and a player who would later become Michael Brantley, the unassuming Kluber was obtained in a trade where the Tribe gave up the final two months of Jake Westbrook in the midst of another disappotining season in 2010. The Tribe could have used a bat, but Ryan Ludwick was sent to San Diego as a part of the three-team deal. The fire sale was in full effect—Kerry Wood was also sent packing, morale around the city was plummeting. At the time, Kluber was just a 24-year-old kid meddling through Double-A ball, boasting a 6-6 record with an ERA of 3.45. He had, however, amassed 136 strikeouts, leading the Texas League in whiffs. When describing Kluber to the local media following the deal, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said “He has an average to above-average fastball and a plus breaking ball—he has the ability to miss bats.”
Boy, does he ever.
(Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
- They’ve since joined thousands of others in not renewing, opting to use the money to buy a boat. [↩]