Kluber-Lester battle lives up to hype
Both aces notch strong outing, including Cubs' starter's 11-pitch at-bat
CHICAGO -- Corey Kluber's focus is singular on the day he pitches. The ace of the Indians' rotation narrows his concern to each hitter who steps into the batter's box, and he doesn't bother to pay much attention to who is opposite him on the mound.
In the Indians' 2-1 loss to the Cubs on Monday afternoon, though, Kluber found himself in unique circumstances as an American League pitcher. In the third inning, Chicago left-hander Jon Lester -- proving to be a formidable foe on the hill for the AL's reigning Cy Young Award winner -- was also giving Kluber a battle from the batter's box.
A pitchers' duel that more than lived up to the billing extended outside the expected margins.
"That's certainly not one of Lester's strengths," quipped Indians manager Terry Francona, who knows Lester from their days with the Red Sox. "He's got a lot of them, but that's not one of them."
In the midst of a perfect-game bid for Kluber that spanned 16 batters to open the game, Lester put up the biggest fight. The pitcher who was 1-for-80 in his career at the plate not only sliced his way through 8 2/3 innings against Cleveland's offense, but he also fought through 11 pitches in his third-inning clash with Kluber.
Finally, after Lester fouled off five, the Cubs' pitcher slashed a pitch to deep left field for the final out of the third. From there, Kluber and Lester continued on the more traditional path of a highly anticipated duel.
"He's got obviously nasty stuff," Lester said. "Obviously, you know what my track record is on that. I try to battle and have a good at-bat and see where it takes me."
Kluber managed the slightest of smirks when asked about Lester's hitting.
"It was a lot better at-bat than a .020-something hitter," Kluber said.
Kluber ended with 121 pitches in the latest entry to his Cy Young encore. Coming off a rough outing at Fenway Park, where the righty gave up six runs and a career-high four homers on Wednesday, Kluber spun 7 2/3 strong innings at Wrigley Field. He piled up 11 strikeouts, issued no walks and held Chicago without a hit until David Ross' one-out single in the sixth dropped in front of left fielder Michael Brantley.
Similarly, Lester was coming off his worst outing of the season, having allowed seven runs in only 2 2/3 innings against the Tigers on Wednesday. Prior to that setback, the lefty had spun a 1.92 ERA in his previous eight outings for the red-hot Cubs, and he looked more like that pitcher against the Tribe. Lester induced 16 outs via grounders, including four double plays, in 8 2/3 innings.
"We had to pitch that well," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Their guy was outstanding, our guy was outstanding. Not really a whole lot of well-struck baseballs with the wind blowing out. Both guys were fantastic."
Like Kluber, Lester tried not to concern himself with what the Cleveland starter was doing.
"I'm not worried about him," Lester said. "If I'm not focused on my start, then I'm worried about the wrong thing. Obviously, you know with Corey over there, you're going to have a little bit of a battle. You've got to try to keep your team in the game the best you can."
The first breakthrough against Kluber came in the seventh inning, when Chris Coghlan doubled with one out and Anthony Rizzo pulled an inside sinker down the right-field line for a triple. On the play, Indians right fielder Jerry Sands tracked down the liner on a dead sprint and made a diving attempt to snag it from the air, but the ball struck his glove and skipped by for the RBI three-base hit.
"He full-out dove for it and almost caught it," said Kluber, who scattered four hits in the no-decision. "It was a good pitch. I put it right where I wanted to. It was surprising he was able to hit it, much less keep it fair, but that's the way it goes."
The Indians were held off the board until the ninth inning, when Lester opened by hitting Ryan Raburn with a pitch. Four batters later -- after Lester struck out Cleveland's two best hitters, Jason Kipnis and Brantley -- Carlos Santana pulled a two-out offering into left for a run-scoring single. That pulled the game into a 1-1 deadlock and sent Lester to the showers after 97 pitches, six stikeouts, six hits and one walk.
Kris Bryant sent the Cubs home with the win courtesy of a walk-off home run in the ninth against Tribe reliever Zach McAllister.
Both Kluber and Lester pitched well enough to win, but the baseball gods saw to it that neither came away with a loss.
Kluber enjoyed the challenge.
"There would be a lot more enjoyment if we were up 10-0," he said. "That's part of the competition aspect. You want to be in that spot where you're pitching against a guy who is a really good pitcher and is throwing the ball well and you go toe to toe with him. We both gave our team a chance to win."