If you thought that 2013 was one crazy year in the world of Cleveland Sports, 2014 once again proved that there is rarely a dull moment. There were good times and bad, hirings and firings, wins and losses, homecomings and award winners. As the year comes to a close, like we have done the last six years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the ten biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.
If I had told you that the 2014 Cleveland Indians were going to get absolutely nothing from Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, and Michael Bourn, Opening Day starter Justin Masterson was going to flame out so badly that he would be removed from the rotation and traded for a AAA outfielder, and the closer they signed, John Axford, would be removed from the role in May, you would have said this team would have finished with around 70 wins. All of those things should have added up to a complete disaster, especially with Masterson, the team’s de facto “ace” essentially crumbling.
If you recall back to last Spring, the Indians biggest question mark, and it wasn’t even close, was their starting rotation. The prevailing thought was that Masterson would lead, with the phenom Danny Salazar poised to take the next step and work his way into the number two spot. Corey Kluber was going to be that middle of the rotation rock, a solid guy who could hopefully be counted on to keep the Indians in games. In 2013, Kluber came out of nowhere to emerge as a real rotation savior when the Brett Myers experience predictably failed. Corey was a pleasant surprise and was cruising along until a finger injury put him on the shelf for a month in mid-August into September. He finished his season 11-5 with an ERA of 3.85 with 136 strikeouts in 146.1 innings pitched. I was thinking we had another Jake Westbrook on our hands.
Instead, Corey Kluber became a right-handed Cliff Lee.
Ironically, the 2014 season didn’t start well for the right-hander. In the season’s second game, Kluber couldn’t get out of the fourth in Oakland as the A’s battered him around for five runs on eight hits in three and a third. He struck out just two and walked three in a 6-1 Tribe loss.
“That was very un-Kluber like,” said manage Terry Francona after the loss. “He just threw a lot of pitches, had to work for everything he got, had a lot of deep counts and fell behind a lot of hitters because of that. And, when he made a mistake, it came in the zone and they hit it.”
As it turned out, the loss in Oakland would be only of two starts that Kluber didn’t impress. Yes, his April wasn’t great, but when the Calendar turned to May, a dominant starting pitcher had begun to form. The first inkling came in a complete game, four hitter of Kansas City on April 24th where Kluber gave up just one unearned run on four hits while striking out 11 without issuing a single walk.
The best thing about Corey? He is so freaking humble. After the best game of his life, here is what he said: “I really wasn’t trying to make a bigger deal out of it than going out there and getting three more outs (each inning),” he said. “Maybe that’s why it worked out.”
We’d see plenty more of these types of performances throughout the season. Like his back to back complete game, zero earned run starts at Kansas City and at home against Seattle where he struck out 18 without walking a single batter. That was in the middle of a 10 start stretch where Corey gave up eight earned runs TOTAL (four of which came in one start) while punching out 83 compared to just 11 free passes. Word was starting to get out of Cleveland, there is a real stopper in town.
Kluber outdueled Felix Hernandez in that July 30th start on a 85-pitch complete game “Maddux” shutout. He threw just 16 balls. Think about that for a second. Said Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon after the game: “That guy is good, what he did tonight was not a fluke, trust me.”
That start came a day after Masterson was dealt. It was then where Kluber took it upon himself to step forward. Though really in just his first full season in the Majors (he did not make the team in 2013 out of Goodyear), he took over the mantle as the leader of the rotation, not just on the field, but in the clubhouse as well. That is what sets him apart from some of the other great pitchers in the game.
“He’s (Masterson) been a big part of helping me learn to be a big leaguer and learn to pitch up here,” Corey said that night. “Hopefully I can pass along some information he’s given me along the way. I think we all accept a little bit more responsibility now. He was the quote, unquote leader of the staff. Guys looked to him. Now, we have to do a little bit more.”
This was a guy who was not a top draft pick bonus baby. He wasn’t given anything. Heck, go back to Spring 2013 when I, along with many others, continued to view him as nothing more than “rotation filler.” Essentially, I looked at him then the way I looked at Josh Tomlin. Now, in December of 2014, Kluber is one of the best starting pitchers in the game.
By September, the Indians had little margin for error, and their ace wouldn’t let his starts go to waste. In his final five outings, the Tribe took all five games with Kluber giving up just five runs. Remember, there was noise that he was starting to slow down on Labor Day when the Tigers knocked him around. Corey was not having any of it and made zero excuses, he just went out and won five straight with 56 K’s and five walks.
The climax to his incredible campaign came on September 26th. With the Indians essentially down to a “win out” mode, Kluber gave the Wahoos eight scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts in a 1-0 win. His skipper just beamed in his postgame comments:
“He looked like he was on a mission, but he’s looked like that all season,” Francona said. “That was Corey Kluber at his best, and he’s done it so many times.”
The man who closed for Kluber all year, Cody Allen, chimed in as well. “He’s been our horse all year. He’s an elite talent. He’s a guy you can run out there and match him up against anybody. Every time he pitches we have a pretty good chance to win. A guy like him is pretty special.”
In the end, the Indians didn’t make it to their second straight October, but they did find themselves a true ace and leader in Corey Kluber. When the dust settled, the numbers he put up were staggering:
235.2 innings pitched. 7.3 WAR (MLB best), 269 K’s (second best to David Price), 2.35 FIP (second best to Clayton Kershaw), 18 wins, 2.44 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 11 starts with 10 strikeouts or more. But would it be good enough to make him the Indians third Cy Young winner since 2007? His top competition was none other than King Felix himself. The name recognition lone was thought to put Hernandez over the top, but for once, the MLB writers came through in a big way, giving Kluber the award he so richly deserved.
Not bad for a guy who the Indians got for two months of Jake Westbrook and $2 million.