By Michael Beaven
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: The dominance that Corey Kluber displayed in the regular season in 2017 did not transfer over to the postseason.
Indians fans grew accustomed to watching Kluber baffle hitters as the team won 102 games, but the ace right-hander looked ordinary in this five-game American League Division Series with the New York Yankees.
The Indians built a 2-0 lead in the series, but the Yankees rallied back to advance to meet the Houston Astros after earning a 5-2 win in a Game 5 on Wednesday that Kluber started before a sellout crowd of 37,802 at Progressive Field.
Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius hit two home runs off of Kluber over the fence in right field on Wednesday and finished the evening 3-for-4 at bat with three runs batted in.
“Two pitches, really,” Kluber said. “I made two mistakes to Didi [in the first and third innings]. I put two balls right into his bat path and he’s a good hitter. He hit two home runs. That’s really what stands out. It ended up being the difference.”
Kluber, a front-runner for the American League Cy Young Award, wasn’t the only Indians player who faltered in this series. Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Michael Brantley struggled, and Edwin Encarnacion missed time due to an ankle injury.
Many observers wondered if Kluber’s back was bothering him Wednesday as he battled through 3 2/3 innings, struck out six and allowed three hits, three earned runs and two walks. His start in Game 2 against the Yankees was also un-Kluber-like when he worked 2 2/3 innings, struck out four and allowed seven hits, six earned runs and one walk.
“Obviously, we did a great job battling back in Game 2 and winning that game [9-8], but I gave up three today and we only scored two,” Kluber said. “So, it wasn’t good enough.”
A back injury landed Kluber on the disabled list for most of May. He returned on June 1 and posted a 15-2 record over his final 23 starts of the regular season. He finished the season 18-4 with a 2.25 ERA and 265 strikeouts and 36 walks in 203 2/3 innings.
Indians manager Terry Francona was asked if Kluber’s back was bothering him Wednesday, and he responded by saying: “You know what? I think he’s fighting a lot, and I think you also have to respect the fact that guy wants to go out there and he’s our horse. And sometimes it doesn’t work.”
Kluber was also asked about his health after the game, and said: “I don’t think I need to get into details about it. I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch.”
Kluber admitted that he was “not good enough” during his playoff starts, but his teammates remain supportive. Closer Cody Allen praised Kluber for being the Indians “best guy” and the man who “drives the ship.”
“He’s a warrior,” catcher Roberto Perez said. “I take Corey any day over everybody.”
Said outfielder Jay Bruce: “Coming back here with Corey on the mound, you write that up every single time and I’ll take my chances. We trust him.”
When asked specifically, what was wrong with Kluber, Perez said: “I really don’t know. You can talk to [pitching coach] Mickey [Callaway] or Tito about it. . . . He’s our ace. I’d take him any day. We’ve just got to turn the page and get ready for the offseason.”
Perez said Kluber’s breaking ball “got flatter” as the game progressed.
“He didn’t locate the first home run to Didi,” Francona said. “He yanked it all the way across the plate, but then he gathered himself and went back out and looked good.
“I just thought quickly, his stuff was starting to trend down. Even the last inning, he got a strikeout on a hanging breaking ball. Just wasn’t the normal, crisp – especially the movement. A lot of pitches were flat.”
Gregorius said he approaches every at bat “always looking for a fastball.”
“So I’m trying to stay ready for the fastball and off-speed pitches,” Gregorius said. “If you see it in the first at-bat, he threw me a really nasty cutter, swing and miss.
“Then after that, he tried to come in with another fastball with two strikes, and I ended up putting a really good swing on it. It put us up in the first inning.
“Then my next at-bat, I was like if they threw me the nasty cutter the first pitch, I might swing. Then he threw it actually and I fouled it off. I said, all right, get back to fastball away, and then I think he threw me a curveball or slider or cutter inside again, and I ended up putting a good swing on it and it went out.”
Yankees manager Joe Girardi lauded Gregorius for his offensive and defensive skills.
“Didi’s at-bats have been great all year,” Girardi said. “He drove in almost 90 runs and missed a month of the season. It’s pretty remarkable the season that he’s had for us.
“And the double play that he turned on [Francisco] Lindor [in the fifth inning] is not an easy play. Without his arm strength, he doesn’t do that, and that could change the game.”