CLEVELAND: Northeast Ohio baseball fans haven’t yet succumbed to the lure of Klubermania, but maybe they should.
Corey Kluber has been the best surprise of the season for the Indians, who eked out a 2-0 win over Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals Sunday at Progressive Field.
If they picked three stars of the game as they do in the NHL, Kluber (5-4, 3.58 ERA) would win No. 1 and No. 2 in a landslide vote with Jason Kipnis the choice for star No. 3.
For the second consecutive start, Kluber delivered eight strong innings, holding the Nationals to seven hits, including two that never left the infield and two flairs to the outfield that would not have cracked a bone china coffee cup. Kluber did not walk a batter and struck out eight.
If these numbers make it appear he spent the day in a rocking chair, be advised that his outing was anything but stress free. Four times, Kluber put the leadoff batter on base and once Anthony Rendon doubled with one out.
Four times, the Nats put at least one runner in scoring position with less than two outs — three times that runner was on third — yet Kluber refused to give in.
Said manager Terry Francona in the aftermath: “Wow. He was so good all day. From the first pitch, he was very aggressive with his fastball. I don’t think he threw one change-up. That was really fun to watch.”
It would be one thing if Kluber were totally at fault for putting himself in jeopardy, but he had help from his teammates.
In the fourth inning, Rendon led off with a single and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a ground ball to third. John McDonald gloved the ball and threw wide of second for an error that put runners on first and third. Kluber responded by striking out Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond, the middle of the Nationals’ lineup.
Denard Span started the sixth by beating out an infield single up the middle and took second when Reynolds mishandled Kipnis’ throw to first. Rendon followed with a single to put runners on first and third, but Kluber struck out Zimmerman and induced LaRoche to bounce into a double play.
Crisis No. 3 came in the seventh. This time Werth blooped a double near the right field line, and Kluber hit Desmond with a pitch to put runners on first and second.
Steve Lombardozzi tried to sacrifice the runners to second and third. Instead, his bunt hung in the air just long enough for Kluber to think he could making a diving catch, but he fell short, rolled over and Lombardozzi reached with a single.
Bases loaded, nobody out, so what’s the plan? Jhonatan Solano lined a pitch to Reynolds, who doubled up Lombardozzi at first, and Roger Bernadina grounded out to the shortstop.
“In a couple of those innings, I would have been glad to get out of with a run and limit the damage,” Francona said.
What was Kluber’s secret?
“It’s big when you get into jams to go pitch by pitch and not get ahead of yourself,” he said. “You just have to try and execute each pitch.”
In his past seven starts, Kluber has compiled a 2.51 ERA and averaged six innings per outing. After being summoned from Triple-A in early August last year, Kluber went 2-5 with a 5.14 ERA in 12 starts.
“I can’t really say what the difference is,” he said. “I think maybe I’m making adjustments pitch to pitch now; last year I could only do that between innings. I have more confidence, but I’m also being more aggressive and pounding the strike zone.”
The mechanics of Kluber’s enhanced development are not what excites Francona.
“Right in front of our eyes,” he said, “we’re seeing a kid become a really good pitcher.
As expected, the Tribe offense was shut down by Strasburg (3-6, 2.50 ERA), who was making his first start after being on the disabled list the entire month with a strained lat. Strasburg’s command was shaky (four walks), but he gave up only one hit in five innings, and it cost him.
With one out in the fourth, he walked Kipnis, who stole second and kept going to third when Solano’s throw rolled into the outfield. Carlos Santana followed with a single up the middle to score the run.
In the eighth, Michael Bourn led off with a double against Craig Stammen, reached third on Mike Aviles’ sacrifice bunt and scored on Kipnis’ sacrifice fly.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.