KANSAS CITY -- Both in the regular season and in the playoffs, Mike Clevinger bounced between starting and relieving for the Indians over the past two seasons. In January, the blossoming right-hander expressed he only had one role in mind for this year.
"I'm not even thinking about the bullpen," Clevinger said matter-of-factly. "I want to throw 200 innings."
In a 14-6 victory over the Royals on Friday night, Clevinger saw that goal to fruition in the final regular-season outing of a breakout campaign. He logged the 6 2/3 innings he needed, and Josh Donaldson highlighted a 10-run seventh with a grand slam to power the American League Central champions to a rout.
Clevinger's performance put the period on a precise 200-inning showing.
"For him to get 200 innings is pretty special," manager Terry Francona said. "He ought to be really proud of himself. He's worked really hard, and for him to hold his stuff like he did the entire year, and to do what he's done, is pretty good. I know the guys were thrilled [for him]."
The Indians boast one of baseball's elite rotations, given the presence of two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, along with Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. This season, Clevinger made it clear that this staff is now more of a four-horsemen scenario than just a three-headed monster.
In fact, while injuries factored into the equation for Carrasco and Bauer, Kluber (210 innings and 216 strikeouts) and Clevinger are the only two Tribe starters to reach both 200 innings and 200 strikeouts this season. This marks only the fourth time in Indians history that two pitchers achieved those benchmarks in the same season. It was also done by Kluber and Carrasco in '17, and by Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant twice (1967-68).
After Clevinger allowed a two-out double in the seventh inning to Ryan O'Hearn, Francona headed to the mound and handed the ball to sidearmer Adam Cimber. A bloop double to right by Hunter Dozier brought a run in, tidying up Clevinger's season line. He ended the season 13-8 with a 3.02 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 32 starts. Clevinger's 4.3 WAR (per Fangraphs) currently ranks ninth overall in the AL.
In the second half, Clevinger has fashioned a 2.31 ERA with 89 strikeouts in 78 innings.
"He's taken the step forward," Indians outfielder Jason Kipnis said. "Any time you see a starting pitcher tally 200 innings and 200 strikeouts, that's a dependable arm. That's a guy who takes the ball every fifth day, and goes out there and gives you a quality start."
The Indians knew they were taking on a project when they acquired Clevinger from the Angels on Aug. 7, 2014, in a one-for-one deal for reliever Vinnie Pestano. Clevinger was a prospect in need of a delivery makeover and was still in the early stages of a comeback from Tommy John surgery.
Needless to say, the trade has worked out for the Tribe.
"They did a great job," said Kipnis, who is close friends with Pestano. "He was a best friend, but as a teammate and as someone who was looking to win, that's a fantastic trade. I'm not gonna hold it against [Clevinger] or anything like that. It turned out to be a great move."
For the first six frames against Royals starter Ian Kennedy, a third-inning solo home run by Kipnis was all the support the Tribe could manage. That changed swiftly in the seventh, when the Indians pounded out 10 runs on nine hits to pull away. It marked their first 10-run inning since Sept. 28, 2012 (also against the Royals).
That helped make a winner out of Clevinger, who will now begin planning for the upcoming AL Division Series against the Astros.
As things stand, Kluber and Carrasco project as the first two starters for the ALDS, which begins on Oct. 5 at Minute Maid Park. The Indians' decision-makers are still discussing the plans for Clevinger and Bauer. It is possible that one of those two may be available out of the bullpen in the first two games before returning for Game 4 (if necessary).
When Francona met Clevinger on the mound in the seventh inning on Friday night, he told the pitcher he was proud of him. Clevinger hopes to hear those same words throughout October.
"There's a bigger goal than my 200 innings," Clevinger said.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
A grand inning: The first five Indians batters in the seventh inning reached via hit, including an RBI single apiece for Yonder Alonso and Roberto Perez. Two more runs scored on a two-base error on an infield chopper from Francisco Lindor. After an RBI single later in the inning by Edwin Encarnacion, Donaldson crushed a 1-0 pitch from Jake Newberry a projected 413 feet to left-center (per Statcast™) for Cleveland's 11th grand slam of the season. Greg Allen capped off the outburst with a run-scoring double.
"Little things turn into big things," Francona said. "When you play the game right, you get rewarded for it."
Ninth-inning drama: Riding a recent hot streak, Cody Allen took over in the ninth to get some work with a 14-1 lead. After a strikeout, the righty gave up two hits, including an RBI single to Salvador Perez, and he then issued two walks. At 20 pitches (nine strikes), Allen was lifted in favor of Adam Plutko, who allowed a grand slam to Brian Goodwin. Prior to Friday, Allen had spun 10 1/3 shutout innings over his last 11 appearances.
"He just didn't have the finish on his fastball," Francona said. "The breaking ball was OK. We want to pitch him back-to-back days. We'll talk to him [before Saturday's game]."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Kipnis slid awkwardly, but he made a catch in front of him to rob Perez of a hit in the fourth inning. One frame later, Kipnis was tested by a near-identical sinking liner to center off the bat of Dozier. This time, Kipnis' sliding catch was smooth and it ended with him smiling. Both times, Kipnis tore up chunks of grass. After the second catch, Kipnis put the piece of earth back where it belonged, patting the ground and laughing.
"I like to think I made a little bit of an adjustment on the second divot," Kipnis quipped. "It was good. I like to have that same kind of reaction each time and to be able to come in on it right away, I was proud of that."
The Indians have won 90 or more games in at least three consecutive seasons for the third time in franchise history. Cleveland also accomplished that feat from 1999-2001 and across the 1950-55 campaigns. The Indians lead the AL in wins (544) in the past six years under Francona.
Indians ace Corey Kluber (20-7, 2.82 ERA) will make his final push for another American League Cy Young Award when he faces the Royals at 7:15 p.m. ET on Saturday at Kauffman Stadium. It will be Kluber's final tuneup for a potential Game 1 start in the AL Division Series against the Astros. Kansas City will counter with righty Jakob Junis (8-12, 4.42 ERA).