CHICAGO -- The American League pitcher thrust into his obligatory at-bats in a National League setting is little more than a scavenger -- scraping, clawing and searching not just for something resembling a positive at-bat but for the very bat he'll take with him to the plate.
Corey Kluber found himself in that position in the lead-up to Game 4 of the World Series at Wrigley Field on Saturday night, and his eventual stick selection was a little bit about feel and a lot about feasibility. The Indians' best pure hitter, Michael Brantley, had logged all of 39 at-bats in this 2016 season because of continued shoulder troubles following offseason surgery, and yet it was his bat -- perhaps appropriately, in a season that has been very much about overcoming the adversity of his absence -- that contributed to a pivotal sequence of events in the 7-2 victory that put the Indians one win away from their first championship in 68 years.
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"I figured," Kluber said of Brantley's bat, "it's got a lot of hits left in it."
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The Indians, quite frankly, hadn't been hitting much, both in this Fall Classic and in this postseason, in general. Theirs has been an approach built on awesome execution from a short-handed pitching staff, with just enough offensive contribution to produce early or mid-inning leads that hold up in the hands of Andrew Miller and Co. in the back end of the bullpen.
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So, what happened here, on a night when the Cubs were intent on reaffirming the fortitude that made them 103-game winners in the first place, was somewhat of a stray from the script. The Indians, for only the third time this October and only the second time in 10 postseason victories, actually didn't strike first. It was Anthony Rizzo's first-inning single off Kluber that put the first notch on that classic center-field scoreboard.
How the Indians responded against John Lackey in the second went a long way toward telling the tale of their postseason run. It involved belief in each other (or, in this case, belief in an inanimate object belonging to another) and Terry Francona's managerial tact.
As he had in the Series' first NL-rules entry, Francona kept Carlos Santana in his lineup. But this time, rather than sticking him in left and praying for benevolence from the baseball gods, Francona put him at first, at Mike Napoli's expense. It was a one-day retreat, as Napoli will be back in the Game 5 lineup tonight against lefty Jon Lester, but it carried with it faith that Santana, who was 0-for-7 with four walks so far in this Series, had a big swing in him.
Santana found out about the lineup change when he arrived to the park Saturday afternoon.
"I respect Tito," he said. "He does a good job making changes. I was very surprised, but I tried to prepare and to help my team."
Indeed, he did. In his leadoff at-bat in the second, Santana smacked one over the right-field wall to even things up at 1.
"Lackey likes to attack with the inside pitch," Santana said. "But the home run, he tried to throw in and it stayed over the middle."
Santana had worked the count full with the refined plate approach that makes him such a dangerous hitter. It was the kind of at-bat we've come to expect from him.
It was harder to expect that kind of at-bat from Kluber, if only because he came in with just 21 career plate appearances to his name.
But after Lonnie Chisenhall reached on a Kris Bryant throwing error, Roberto Pérez moved the runner to second with a groundout and Tyler Naquin was intentionally walked to bring up the pitcher's spot with two out, Kluber acquitted himself quite well. His eight-pitch at-bat saw him ignore a couple high-and-tight two-seamers and another off the inside edge while also fouling off a 3-1 offering and two more with the count full.
"For a guy who literally gets four at-bats, if that, he actually has a professional approach," Jason Kipnis said of Kluber. "He gets a World Series at-bat after battling and spitting on pitches, not just hacking."
Finally, Kluber put one in play, and it was a little bouncer to the left-hand side that Bryant charged in on and then again threw errantly to first. Kluber beat the throw, and the ball missed Rizzo's glove, allowing Chisenhall to score to make it 2-1.
The run was significant on two levels. For one, it marked the first time in the last 15 games of this MLB postseason that the seemingly simple process of a lead change had been accomplished.
Furthermore, it was confirmation, if you're the spiritual sort, that this game was going Cleveland's way. Because when you can take the lead on basically a 30-foot dribbler off the bat of the pitcher that brings home a runner all the way from second, the night -- and perhaps the Series -- is yours.
Kluber was right: Brantley's bat still had a big hit in it, although that turned out to be that particular bat's last hit.
"I broke it," Kluber said with a smile.
The Indians proceeded to break the hearts of the Cubs' faithful from there. Francisco Lindor's RBI single scored Kipnis in the third, and Chisenhall's sacrifice fly off reliever Mike Montgomery made it 5-1 in the sixth. The game was broken open when hometown boy Kipnis, who is playing with a sprained ankle and toes that look like purple grapes in the wake of a post-ALCS celebration accident, hit a three-run blast in the seventh.
But the second inning changed this game and summed up this story. These unflappable Indians use teamwork and the trustworthy Tito to great effect. And it's put them on the precipice of a win that would be nearly seven decades in the making.