CLEVELAND -- Corey Kluber stood atop a small wood box, allowing the pack of reporters to circle around him inside the funereal interview room across the hall from the Indians' quiet clubhouse. Questions broke through the awkward silence, which was then replaced by Kluber's mumbled, monotone replies.
The sting of an abrupt October exit had yet to fully sink in for Kluber, whose struggles in the American League Division Series defeat to the Yankees last year were under the media microscope. If there was something ailing Kluber, the leader of Cleveland's rotation was not about to fire it into the microphones as an excuse.
"I don't think I need to get into details about it," Kluber said after the Game 5 loss to New York last year. "I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch."
:: ALDS schedule and results ::
Last spring, when Kluber had four months to let the frustration dissipate, the pitcher repeated a variation of the same response.
"I was good enough to pitch," he said. "I just didn't get the job done."
Now, as the Indians prepare for the upcoming ALDS against the Astros, with Kluber coming off yet another brilliant campaign as Cleveland's ace, there is still no further information about what precisely was hindering the right-hander last October. If there was something minor healthwise hindering his mechanics, Kluber is still not tipping his hand.
"And he never will," said Josh Tomlin, whose locker is a couple down from Kluber's at Progressive Field. "That's what you want in a guy, right? You want a guy to be able to take the ball no matter what the issue is and go compete. That's what he did. Whether he was 100 percent, whether he was 50 percent, if he thought he was good enough to go out there and get the job done, you give him the ball."This October could be viewed as a chance at redemption for Kluber.
Kluber will take the ball for the Indians opposite Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the ALDS on Friday at Minute Maid Park. Cleveland's two-time AL Cy Young Award winner shouldered a heavy load in a remarkable 2016 postseason showing, but he could not get the job done against the Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series. Kluber started twice in the ALDS last year against the Yankees, but it is known that something was not right with the pitcher.
As Kluber compartmentalizes all the information at hand for the ALDS ahead, those other playoffs experiences, including the missteps, are stuffed away in "the past" file in his mind. He has scouting reports on Houston hitters to worry about. He has a game plan to assemble with his catcher and pitching coach Carl Willis.
"I don't want this to come off the wrong way," Kluber said. "But I think fans tend to dwell on things like that a little more than we do as players. Obviously, when we were eliminated last year, there was disappointment. Just like when we lost Game 7 of the World Series, there was disappointment. Part of preparing yourself for the next year is putting that behind you and getting ready for the next Spring Training, the next season, the next postseason.
"It's always having that mentality of looking forward. There's enough to worry about without having to try to make up for last year."
All Kluber did this year -- following up his AL Cy Young Award showing in 2017 -- was go 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA in 33 starts, ending with 222 strikeouts against 34 walks in an AL-leading 215 innings. The right-hander became the first pitcher in Indians history to log at least 200 innings and 200 strikeouts in five consecutive seasons, and he became the first 20-game winner for the Tribe since 2008.
Over the past three years combined, Kluber has gone 56-20 with a 2.77 ERA, posting 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings to go with a 5.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. For all the success, though, Kluber would be the first to say that he would happily trade in his personal trophies for a World Series ring.
"He's ready to go. He's ready to accept the challenge of anchoring our staff," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I can't think of anybody better."
Kluber set a franchise record for starts (six) in the 2016 postseason, when he fashioned a 1.83 ERA in 34 1/3 innings before running out of gas for Cleveland's depleted pitching staff in Game 7 of the World Series. He started Game 2 of the ALDS last year and allowed six runs in 2 2/3 innings, but the Tribe made a stirring comeback and beat New York, 9-8, in 13 innings.
In Game 5, Kluber looked better -- he generated 15 swinging strikes in 3 2/3 innings -- but two mistakes to Didi Gregorius led to an early exit. Gregorius hit a solo homer in the first, a two-run homer in the third and the Yankees dealt Cleveland a 5-2 loss to send the club into an early winter.
"It was terrible. It was terrible," Tomlin said. "I didn't know if it was worse in '16 or last year, just the simple fact of we knew what we had last year and we knew we had a chance to win the World Series. Next thing you know, you're at home."
Kluber has done his best to wipe that from his memory.
"Those situations didn't play out the way I would've liked them to," Kluber said. "But it's no different than if you have a bad start during the season. The best way to cope with that is to flush it. If you sit and dwell on it, those things start to eat away at you and you start carrying a weight around that makes doing things that are already difficult even more difficult.
"Whether it's a pitcher pitching poorly or a hitter in a slump, guys have experience of pushing that aside. You keep looking forward and you focus on the task at hand."