Corey Kluber pitched like Corey Kluber Friday night as the Indians opened a three-game weekend series against the visiting Baltimore Orioles at Progressive Field.
And the Indians offense played like…well, the Indians offense for 10 innings before veteran utility man Mike Aviles sent an 11th-inning lead off drive against Orioles reliever Brian Matusz into the left field corner bleachers for a 2-1 victory.
Aviles’ game winner marked the Tribe’s ninth walk-off victory of the season and his third career walk off hit – but first coming via a home run.
With so many veteran Tribe players missing time due to injuries – designated hitter Nick Swisher (knee) and right fielder David Murphy (oblique) being two recent sidelined – the Indians offense has struggled to even give Kluber (who doesn’t require a whole lot) of run support.
Before Aviles’ game-winning hit, the Indians only two previous runs over their previous 26 innings came sandwiched between solo home runs by newcomer Zack Walters – a game winner in the first game of a doubleheader against the Arizona Diamondbacks Wednesday and in the fifth inning Friday.
Ironically, it was Walters’ strikeout with two men on in the ninth inning that sent the game into extra innings with the score knotted 1-1.
An eighth-inning run was all Kluber allowed during his time on the mound, limiting the O’s to five hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings. Kluber’s 10-strikeout performance marked his eighth double-digit effort of the season.
The only pitcher with more double-digit strikeout games this year is Detroit Tigers newcomer David Price, who has 10 to his credit. Racking up that many strikeouts is so rare for an Indians pitcher, Kluber’s feat marks just the 11th in Indians history and the first since Dennis Eckersley did it in 1976.
Kluber showed signs of bending, but not breaking Friday. In the third inning, two base hits and a walk by the O’s quickly loaded the bases. But Kluber didn’t flinch, rebounding to strike out Chris Davis and Adam Jones to escape the threat.
In the bottom of the inning, Tribe rookie outfielder Tyler Holt recorded the first hit off Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen with a textbook bunt single that trickled down the third-base line.
Later in the fifth, another Tribe rookie in Walters snapped the scoreless tie when he led off against the lefty Chen with the homer in an odd at-bat. Walters took such an awkward swing on his first cut, he instantly winced and grabbed his lower left back, prompting manager Terry Francona and a trainer to hustle out of the dugout to check on him.
Walters stayed in the game and ended the at-bat with a home run that just cleared Progressive Field’s 19-foot wall in left center field. But only after surviving a two-minute and 14-second crew chief challenge that ultimately handed Walters his second homer since joining the Indians last week when Murphy went down.
That was all the offensive action for five innings until the game-altering eighth. Despite having already thrown 104 pitches, Kluber came back out to start the inning. He struck out Davis for the fourth consecutive time, recording the first out of the inning for his final strikeout.
But a lengthy controversy over whether Jones’ hand was hit by a Kluber pitch or by his own foul ball ensued, allowing Baltimore manager Buck Showalter to delay the action, obviously trying to throw Kluber off his rhythm. Originally the umpires gathered to get another look at the play, only to find out it wasn’t of the reviewable kind under the current replay rules.
In the meantime, Kluber refused to take a few warm up pitches like most pitchers do during long delays, not wanting to waste any of the precious few pitches he had left. Once the action finally was underway again, Jones weakly grounded out to the mound for the second out.
But when Nelson Cruz smacked a liner up the middle for a hit, Francona called it a day for Kluber and then called on veteran right-hander Bryan Shaw to come on in relief. Moments after Kluber left the mound to a rousing ovation, Shaw promptly gave up back-to-back singles – including a looping liner to J.J. Hardy that scored Cruz to not only tie the game 1-1, but also cost Kluber the win.