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Revisiting Kluber's near-historic 18-K gem

Three years ago Sunday, Indians ace had a chance at Major League history
MLB.com @MLBastian

CLEVELAND -- Roberto Perez did not realize at the time that history was within reach. The Indians catcher just knew that Corey Kluber had everything working against the Cardinals on that night three years ago, and that there was an unusual amount of K signs lined up along the facing of Progressive Field's third deck.

"I didn't know how many strikeouts he had," Perez said with a laugh on Sunday morning. "They put all those up there, but I lost count."

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CLEVELAND -- Roberto Perez did not realize at the time that history was within reach. The Indians catcher just knew that Corey Kluber had everything working against the Cardinals on that night three years ago, and that there was an unusual amount of K signs lined up along the facing of Progressive Field's third deck.

"I didn't know how many strikeouts he had," Perez said with a laugh on Sunday morning. "They put all those up there, but I lost count."

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Three more. That is all Kluber needed to reach a plateau that no pitcher has submitted in a nine-inning game in baseball's long, well-documented history. Four hurlers have reached 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning performance, but 21 remains a tantalizing number for even the game's best swing-and-miss artists.

On May 13, 2015, Kluber had an opportunity to be the first to register baseball's version of Blackjack, but the ace walked to the clubhouse instead of the mound for the ninth inning. Rather than pushing for history, Kluber ended with 18 strikeouts in eight innings, representing what is arguably the greatest pitching performance in Cleveland history, and one of the best outings in Major League annals.

"That was one of the more unbelievable pitching performances I've ever seen," Indians closer Cody Allen said.

Three years to the day of that showing, Kluber spun seven strong innings in an 11-2 rout of the Royals on Sunday afternoon. He allowed no earned runs -- lowering his season ERA to 2.34 this year -- and ended with four strikeouts. Armed with such a substantial lead, Kluber did not need to pile up the punchouts this time.

Video: KC@CLE: Kluber gets Butera swinging for strikeout

Inside his office three years ago, Indians manager Terry Francona could hear the Cleveland crowd reacting to the strikeouts against St. Louis before the pitches were shown on the broadcast on his TV. Francona had been ejected in the fourth inning after arguing that John Lackey hit Jason Kipnis with a pitch intentionally. The manager eventually moved to the weight room, where he listened to the remainder of the game unfold via the radio call.

Down the ramp in the adjacent hallway, bench coach Brad Mills and former Tribe pitching coach Mickey Callaway were responsible for the decision making. In the eighth inning, when Kluber's pitch count climbed to 113, they felt it was an appropriate time to pull the plug on the right-hander's start. Mills understood what was at stake -- striking out the side once more would put Kluber in the record books -- but his mind won out over his heart.

Max Scherzer (May 11, 2016), Randy Johnson (May 8, 2001), Kerry Wood (May 6, 1998) and Roger Clemens (Sept. 18, 1996, and April 29, 1986) are the only pitchers to reach 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning performance.

Before pulling Kluber from the game, Mills made sure the ace was in agreement.

"With the way he had pitched," Mills said, "I didn't want to just go over there and tell him he was out of the game. I wanted him to come to his own decision and take me out of the equation. I went over to him and I said, 'You've done an amazing job. What do you think?' And he indicated he had had enough, which was a relief.

"With the historical aspect of it, I felt like I owed it to him to weigh heavily into the decision to leave him in or take him out."

Francona -- a long-time friend of Mills -- jokingly took a jab at his bench coach three years later.

"Very poor decision making," Francona quipped on Sunday.

Allen remembers the bullpen phone ringing and not being surprised to have his name called for the final frame.

"I don't think any of us were second-guessing anything that Millsie was doing," Allen said. "He's been around the game for a while. He's got a couple [World Series] rings on his fingers to validate every decision he's made."

Kluber, who won his first American League Cy Young Award in the previous campaign, was well over the century mark with his pitch count and another inning could have pushed the total north of 130. No milestone -- no matter how rare -- was worth putting the horse of Cleveland's rotation at risk in Allen's view.

"We're going to need him not only for that game, but for the rest of the season," Allen said. "So, I think we kind of figured that he probably wasn't going back out for the ninth, but we wouldn't have been shocked if he did. I remember coming in and thinking to myself, 'Geez.' First you go, 'Let's get some guys out,' but also, 'It'd be nice to get a couple punchouts here and get to 20.'"

Allen struck out Peter Bourjos to open the ninth, but then used a popout and a groundout to put the finishing touches on Cleveland's 19-strikeout, 2-0 victory over the Cardinals. The 19 strikeouts tied an Indians franchise record for a nine-inning game, but it was Kluber's performance that generated a series of historic footnotes.

Kluber's 18 strikeouts tied Bob Feller's club record for a regulation game (set on Oct. 2, 1938, against Detroit). It just so happened that prior to Kluber's outing against St. Louis, the Bob Feller Exhibit at Progressive Field enjoyed its official opening. Anne Feller, Bob's widow, was on hand for the pregame ceremony and in the stands to watch the Indians ace match her late husband's franchise record.

Kluber joined Johnson (Sept. 28, 1992, against the Rangers) as the only pitchers in MLB history to notch 18 strikeouts in an outing consisting of no more than eight innings. While Kluber allowed one hit and ended with no runs or walks allowed, Johnson's game included two runs yielded, four walks issued, six hits and 160 pitches.

The 98 Game Score Kluber posted was the highest in MLB history for any outing of eight or fewer innings. He also faced the fewest batters (26) and had the fewest opponents' at-bats (25) among the 22 games in which pitchers had 18 or more strikeouts in nine or fewer innings, dating back to 1908.

"That was an unbelievable game," Perez said. "He struck out 18. It felt like he struck out all of them -- everyone he faced. On that day, he just had everything going."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

Cleveland Indians, Corey Kluber