CLEVELAND -- The Indians knew heading into the 2019 season that they’d need to be able to rely on their starting rotation if they were going to be a contender this season. But just weeks into the year, Mike Clevinger landed on the injured list with an upper back strain. A month later, Corey Kluber fractured his right arm and Trevor Bauer went into a rut.
Then the calendar hit June and Bauer started settling back in, just as Clevinger was set to rejoin the rotation. In his first two trips back to the mound off the injured list -- including a brief week-long stint for a sprained left ankle -- Clevinger labored through a combined 6 1/3 innings where he allowed 12 runs, but he may be heating up at just the right time.
If the Indians would have a chance at making a run at the American League Central-leading Twins, Clevinger would need to be able to carry his weight. And he’s heating up at just the right time.
After the Indians’ players gathered around the television in their clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, watching the Twins get swept in a two-game set against the Mets, Clevinger took the mound and led his team to a 7-2 victory that evening, allowing one run on six hits and matching a career high with 12 strikeouts in six innings.
“Really good stuff,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “A lot of deep counts. It’s going to come with as many strikeouts as he had. But I thought his stuff was tremendous.”
With the win, Cleveland moved to a season-best 14 games over .500 (54-40) and is four games behind Minnesota.
“It’s inevitable to be aware of what’s going on,” Clevinger said. “It’s still just taking the same importance each and every day, and I’m trying to do the same thing when I go out there.”
After posting a 17.05 ERA in his first two starts back with his team, Clevinger has gone 2-0 with a 1.06 ERA and 27 strikeouts over his last three outings (two earned runs in 17 innings). What’s changed? Will it continue? Here are three reasons to be encouraged by the 28-year-old’s recent run.
1) Loosen the reins
First came the upper back strain, then came the ankle. Battling back from both of those injuries caused Clevinger some trouble in his first two starts back. But over his last three outings, he’s progressed from throwing 79 pitches to 92 to 100 on Tuesday night. After the win, Francona said it’s likely the Indians won’t have to be so careful with his pitch count moving forward.
“[Pitching coach] Carl [Willis] and I contemplated letting him go back out,” Francona said. “But we just didn’t want to get into a situation where we had to burn a right-hander for one hitter. ... But I think he’s getting to the point now where you’re going to start to see the game dictate when he comes out.”
Clevinger said that his ankle was nagging him in those early starts off the injured list, but he’s since regained his stability, which has helped his performance. Now, he’s nearly back to 100 percent, ready to be cut loose.
“That’s kind of been the big thing just seeing how I bounce back, how the ankle recovers, how the arm recovers,” Clevinger said. “But it’s been really good so far. Tonight was kind of like the last time they really cut me off at 100 [pitches]. I think the reins will be loose from here on out.”
2) Feel the breeze
Clevinger entered the night owning the highest four-seam fastball whiff rate for a starting pitcher -- with a minimum of 100 swings against the heater -- in the Majors at 38.5 percent. On Tuesday, he added another seven whiffs of the 48 four-seamers he threw -- four of which resulted in a strikeout.
Outside of the fastball, Clevinger added 14 swings and misses with his slider and two from his changeup, totaling a career-high 23 whiffs. The righty entered the 2019 season with four career 20-whiff games, but has already accumulated three in his limited exposure this season.
3) Back in control
After Clevinger’s performance in Baltimore on June 28 where he allowed seven runs in 1 2/3 frames, he said it felt like starting back at the beginning of Spring Training all over again. But since then, he’s been able to find his command for more than just his fastball. On Tuesday, five of his 12 strikeouts were on his slider, four from his fastball and three on his curveball.
“Like knowing if my slider’s gonna break the normal 18 inches to the left or if it’s going to be 14 inches because I’m not accustomed to it,” Clevinger said. “So now I have a really good feel of where each pitch is going when I’m heading towards the plate versus it kind of being -- in Baltimore, it was just like a coin flip if it was gonna break, if it was gonna go straight, if it was gonna sail up.
"Same thing you find when you go Spring Training. Those first couple times in live [batting practice], you’re kind of just feeling it out, trying to feel when things click and not.”