KANSAS CITY -- When Indians manager Terry Francona was asked whether he’d prefer a pitching- or hitting-dominant team during Spring Training, he answered without hesitation: pitching. And while the Tribe has a rotation that could prove to be the most powerful in the Majors when it’s operating at its best, the past week has been the exact opposite of what was envisioned heading into the season.
After losing Mike Clevinger to an upper back strain on Tuesday and a short start of two-thirds of a frame by Carlos Carrasco on Friday, Cleveland’s pitching struggles continued on Sunday in a 9-8 loss to the Royals when Corey Kluber lasted just 2 2/3 innings. Despite a seventh-inning comeback to tie the game, closer Brad Hand gave up an RBI single to Hunter Dozier in the bottom of the ninth. The Indians' streak of 45 consecutive series without being swept was snapped and it was the first sweep of the Tribe by Kansas City in a three-game series at Kauffman Stadium since June 13-15, 2016.
Kluber slips back into old habits
For the second time this season, Kluber lasted fewer than four innings, allowing six runs -- his most since July 12, 2018 -- on six hits and walking a career-high five batters. After giving up homers to Lucas Duda and Whit Merrifield in the second, Kluber walked in two more runs in the third for the second and third time of his nine-year career. His first bases-loaded walk came on April 3, his first home start of this season, after not issuing a walk in any of his previous 54 career plate appearances with the bases juiced.
“First inning, thought he was good,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “And then he started getting under some pitches. I know he knew it. He just was having a hard time self-correcting. You know, you’re out there competing, you’ve got bases loaded, thinking about one thing. It's just he hasn’t gotten to the point yet where he’s a consistent Kluber. He will. And we’ll all be thrilled. Just still a work in progress. Even when your last name is Kluber, sometimes it’s a work in progress.”
In his 200th career start, Kluber said he felt similar to how he did on April 3 against the White Sox when he gave up six runs (four earned) on eight hits through 3 1/3 frames. After correcting some of those mistakes in a solid outing last time on the mound, the right-hander said he fell back into old habits.
“Things have been kind of out whack and I’m working to get it back in line,” Kluber said. “I was able to do a better job of throwing what I wanted to last time out. Like I said, today, the first inning was good. Those bad habits, old habits, whatever you want to call them, they just kind of crept back in and it was kind of the same situation where I just wasn’t able to find the feel to make the adjustment.”
The expectation for the Indians this season was to ride the starters as deep as possible into games, limit the amount of relievers used before the ball gets to Hand and keep opposing offenses at bay as the Tribe wasn’t projected to score many runs. Yet the bats kept them in contention on Sunday, tying season highs for hits (11) and runs (8) after jumping out to an early 3-0 lead in the first. The Indians lost the lead in the second, but they tied the game in the seventh on a two-run single by Jake Bauers. However, Greg Allen, who entered as a pinch-runner after Hanley Ramirez drew a bases-loaded walk, was thrown out by left fielder Alex Gordon trying to go from first to third to end the inning and the rally.
“He said he wanted to draw the throw, but you just got to run with your head up,” Francona said. “I’d rather a guy make a mistake out of being aggressive than have to kick him in the pants to play harder. But at the same time, you don’t want to give outs away.”
“With [Carlos Santana] being on second as the tying run, really just trying to make sure we score that tying run,” Allen said. “Hindsight, it didn’t look like Gordon was going to even make an attempt to throw to home plate. But again, just trying to stay aggressive and it ended up being a bang-bang play at third. But first of all just trying to make sure we scored that run.”