Kluber puts early struggles further in rearview
Indians ace's 13-K effort continues run of strong starts
SEATTLE -- This was the main event. The heavyweight matchup that the fans inside Safeco Field paid to see on Thursday night. Indians ace Corey Kluber stared in at Seattle slugger Nelson Cruz in a power-versus-power moment that was critical to the contest.
The Mariners had two runners aboard with two outs in the fifth inning. Kluber had a three-run lead.
"He's got the ability to hit it out of the park in every at-bat," Kluber said after the Tribe's 5-3 victory over the Mariners.
This time, Cruz struck out on an 87-mph curveball that tailed low and outside, transforming the designated hitter's swing into a flail. Kluber won the battle and then carried on in a 13-strikeout gem that helped push the Indians to their eighth win in 10 games. The right-hander's seven-inning performance also put the finishing touch on an incredible May for the ace.
Kluber ended this month with 60 punchouts, which moved him past Washington's Max Scherzer for the most whiffs in the Majors (96) at the moment. Fifty of those strikeouts have come in Kluber's past four outings, during which he has only two walks, plus a 1.41 ERA in 32 innings.
Kluber is beginning to show the start-to-start consistency that helped him capture the American League Cy Young Award last season.
"Yeah, and that's a good thing for us," Indians manager Terry Francona said, "because he has the ability to take it and go. Some guys get hot and you ride it out. This is just him. That's good."
Kluber also became the first Indians pitcher since at least 1914 to enjoy a month with 60-plus strikeouts and no more than six walks issued. That feat has only been achieved previously in the Majors seven times by six pitchers. That list includes Clayton Kershaw (June 2014), Curt Schilling (April and May in 2002), Pedro Martinez (September 1999), Jim Kaat (September 1967), Sandy Koufax (September 1963) and Juan Marichal (September 1963).
Needless to say, Kluber has been locked in.
"For the most part, I've been in a good spot," Kluber said. "There hasn't been anything major to adjust. I've got to clean up little things here and there and go out and try to get guys out."
Prior to his recent string of stellar starts -- a run that began with his 18-strikeout masterpiece against the Cardinals on May 13 -- Kluber was 0-5 with a 5.04 ERA in his first seven starts of the season. There were a variety of factors: low run support, poor defense at times, pitch sequencing problems and adjusting to catcher Roberto Perez.
Kluber (3-5, 3.52 ERA) looks to have made the necessary adjustments.
"Like I was saying when things weren't going that great," he said, "I wasn't that far off."
The fans in Seattle -- many of whom thought their ace, Felix Hernandez, should have taken home the Cy Young last summer -- certainly saw what Kluber is capable of doing on Thursday. There were some mistakes (Mike Zunino hit a solo homer in the third inning and Dustin Ackley belted a two-run shot in the sixth), but Cleveland's staff leader shrugged them off.
Kluber even appeared to get more dangerous as the evening wore on, registering a strikeout for eight of the final nine outs he recorded.
Kluber's final strikeout concluded the seventh inning and his start. The righty needed just three pitches to once again fan Cruz, who leads the American League with 18 home runs. The knockout blow in the sequence was a 96-mph heater that Kluber buzzed by the slugger's bat.
"He doesn't run out of gas," Francona said of Kluber. "His last pitch was probably his best fastball of the night."