CLEVELAND -- The Indians offense showed signs of coming together at different points throughout the six-game homestand, but the starting rotation has been the dominant force, allowing the Tribe to secure its best start through nine games since 2011, with a 6-3 record. Because the rotation is so crucial to Cleveland's success, fans held their breath as Mike Clevinger was pulled after just 75 pitches Sunday afternoon.
Clevinger struck out 10 through five innings in Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the Blue Jays, recording his seventh career double-digit-strikeout game. But he did not return to the mound to start the sixth due to upper back tightness. Despite the scare, Clevinger said he will be able to make his next start.
“The hope is that it’s an overreaction on our part,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “We’re going to get him worked up tomorrow, just because when a guy’s got a bunch of adrenaline going and when he wakes up tomorrow morning, we just don’t want to guess. … I think there’s some real positive signs. He tested out really well.”
Francona said that the tightness was first mentioned in the second inning, but it didn’t pop up again until the fifth.
“I mean I had it a little bit last year when my [trapezius muscle] would pinch into my [scapula] a little bit,” Clevinger said. “Then in the fifth inning it was the second pitch. So it just started pulling on every part of my back, and pulling on every part of my scap.
“[Pitching coach] Carl [Willis] laid the law down pretty quick, too. Once they said it, I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s starting to pull over towards my shoulder now …,’ and they’re like, ‘No. Not doing that.’ I was like, ‘But I feel strong.’ But it was the right call. It’s early.”
Clevinger is currently penciled in to pitch next Saturday in Kansas City, assuming he feels better as the week continues.
“I think it was more precautionary than anything,” Clevinger said. “It was just being safe. Obviously if maybe I would’ve kept going, it could’ve been a coin flip of what would’ve happened later on to my lat. But my back was getting tight and I didn’t want it to pull on any part of my arm, and stuff that matters, you know?”
Prior to his early departure, Clevinger had permitted just one hit and one walk, and was given some early run support on an RBI double from Carlos Santana -- that extended his hitting streak to eight games -- and an RBI single by Tyler Naquin in the first.
“Heater,” Clevinger said, when asked what was working for him. “I mean everything. Everything was working today. That’s why it was so hard to accept it because I was rolling. I didn’t want to leave that mound at the time, but it was the right call.”
Fastball velocity continues to spike
Clevinger spent the offseason focused on increasing the average velocity of his fastball. After his first start in the team’s home opener on Monday, the 28-year-old right-hander saw a jump of 1.2 mph (up to 94.8 mph) from his average in 2018. He entered Sunday with only four career pitches tracked at 97 mph or higher, but recorded eight against Toronto, including his fastest pitch ever tracked in the Statcast era, at 97.6 mph, on a strikeout to Teoscar Henandez to escape a jam with runners on second and third in the fourth.
“Now it’s like I can actually find that intensity and use it to my advantage, which before I just kind of mentally thought I was,” Clevinger said of working in high-leverage situations. “In reality, I was all over the place. So, it’s a lot different now.”
In two starts this season, Clevinger has recorded 22 strikeouts in 12 innings, allowing no runs and just two hits. The Indians have now won eight straight games at home when Clevinger starts, and he owns a 0.86 ERA in that stretch. On Sunday, he became the fourth pitcher since 1908 to throw at least five scoreless innings with at least 10 strikeouts in his first two starts to begin a season.
“Of course I love it. There’s no doubt about me loving a strikeout, no. That’s for sure,” Clevinger said. “I found out real quick nitpicking early last year that I’m going to throw my power stuff against your power bat, and we’re going to see who comes out on top. The more I can stay in the zone, the longer I can stay in games.”