CHICAGO — They’re not just winning the World Series. They’re not just puncturing dreams all over Chicago. The Cleveland Indians are winning this World Series behind an ace who feels as if he just dropped into this postseason out of a time machine.
He’s Corey Kluber. And at this point, we’re not sure which October legend we should be comparing him to. To Christy Mathewson? To Jack Morris? To Orel Hershiser?
What Kluber is doing, no one does anymore. Not in the 21st century. Give him the ball in Game 1. Give him the ball in Game 4. Give him the ball in Game 7 if you have to.
His team realized weeks ago it had no choice but to try to win this way. So you know what the ace said when the Indians asked him if that would be OK?
“I said, ‘That’s what I’m planning on,’ ” Kluber said Saturday night, after his latest October masterpiece lifted his team to within a game of winning its first World Series in nearly seven decades.
He stood on the grass of Wrigley Field an hour after pitching the Indians to a 7-2 Game 4 win over the Cubs. The giant video board over his shoulder flashed, “2016 WORLD SERIES.” And the Indians now lead that World Series, 3 games to 1.
But the ballpark around him was as quiet. And frankly, that was mostly his fault.
“It was almost like a party,” Kluber said, “to have 40,000 people yelling your name.”
But by “yelling” his name, that wasn’t to be confused with “cheering” his name. Because the single biggest reason the Cubs are in the mess they’re in right now can be summed up in two words: Corey Kluber. So he would not be the most popular human in Chicago these days, no matter how loud they were yelling his name Saturday evening.
The ace has started Games 1 and 4, and won Games 1 and 4 — by giving up a total of one run in 12 innings. It’s no big deal to him. But who does this in the modern world of pitch counts, innings thresholds and third-time-through-the-order phobias? Nobody does this. That would be your answer. He’s the first starting pitcher to win Games 1 and 4 of any World Series since Jose Rijo — in 1990.
“You don’t see that stuff happening anymore,” his pitching coach Mickey Calloway said.
Correct. And because the ace keeps taking the ball on short rest, everybody in this rotation takes the ball on short rest. So the Indians have set themselves up, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, to become just the second team in the past 22 years to win a World Series while using only three starting pitchers.
The only other team to do it, if you’re curious, was the 2009 Yankees. But those 2009 Yankees at least had three viable starters, in CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett. The Indians went into this postseason with, basically, an ace and a prayer.
So when they mapped out their postseason pitching plans, they weren’t formulating those plans out of some sense of futuristic innovation. They were formulating their plans out of sheer desperation. Because someone has to pitch. Every night. The rules say so. So it didn’t take a whole lot of deep sabermetric thinking for the Indians to come to the conclusion that the more the ace pitched, the better off they’d be.
“The injuries made us do it,” Calloway said with a laugh. “I don’t think this was the plan at all. But when you lose two of your starting pitchers, then you have to adjust.”
Kluber has started five times since then. His ERA, after those five trips to the mound, is a spectacular 0.89. Only one pitcher in the history of baseball ever rolled up a better ERA in his first five postseason starts. That would be Mathewson at 0.38.
So it’s true that unlike Kluber, Mathewson made all of those starts in the World Series. But he also made them over 100 years ago. In a very different time and place.
Meanwhile back in Cleveland, the ace also has started twice in this postseason on three days’ rest. That’s something he’d never done before this October and something only three other pitchers in the last decade (Sabathia, Chris Carpenter and Clayton Kershaw) have done in a single postseason.
Now the Cubs would have to rise up and win Games 5 and 6 to force Kluber to pitch again in this World Series. But the ace is prepared to come back on short rest one more time in Game 7 if he has to. And if he does, that would make him and Curt Schilling the only pitchers to start Games 1, 4 and 7 of any World Series in the last quarter-century.
“It wasn’t like this was some deal where we had to adjust on the fly,” Calloway said, “where we just said yesterday, ‘Hey, you’ve got to pitch tomorrow.’ He knew two or three weeks ago, when the postseason started, that he was going to have to do this. So that’s even more pressure on him. When we lost those two starters (Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar), he knew right away, like, ‘Ohhhh crap, I’m going to have to throw a lot more innings.’ “
He has now thrown 30⅓ of those innings in this postseason, which is two more than all other Cleveland starters combined. And he’s up to 245⅓ innings since Opening Day. That’s the most he has ever pitched in his life. But when asked Saturday night if he was feeling the weight of all those innings, Kluber spoke like a man who had decided to will himself not to feel anything until all this is over.
“When it’s all said and done, I might feel it,” he said. “But right now, you’re running in these games on so much adrenaline that once you get out there, it all goes out the window.”
Four weeks ago, he might have been the most top-secret Cy Young winner on earth. But October is a time when secrets like that are revealed. Kluber has shown this month, and especially in this World Series, that he can not only shut down the best lineups in baseball, but he can also do it with four different pitches.
He dazzled the Cubs with his darting two-seam fastball last Tuesday. Then four days later, he overmatched them with the curveball that is really his signature out pitch and one of the best pitches in baseball.
“He probably hasn’t even thrown a changeup to these guys yet,” Calloway said. “So if he has to face them again, you might see some really good changeups.”
Two years ago, you might recall a fellow named Madison Bumgarner turning himself into a one-man rotation because that’s what it took for the Giants to win themselves a World Series. Well, outside of the fact that Kluber hasn’t made any emergency five-inning relief outings yet, isn’t this practically the same thing?
“That’s what it seems like,” left fielder Rajai Davis said. “To hold ‘em for so long, that’s what you need in the postseason. You need a pitcher like that to be able to lean on.
“He’s our rock. He’s our foundation. … He’s been our everything. If we can, we might have to put him on our shoulders in the celebration and march around the field.”
His team is now one win away from unfurling that celebration. So if you see Kluber riding on all those shoulders as the fireworks pop and the champagne flows, you’ll know why.
“This guy hasn’t gotten his due. He’s won a Cy Young, and he still hasn’t been a household name,” Jason Kipnis said. “But after this, I don’t think he’s going to have to worry about that anymore.”