CLEVELAND — The Indians’ grim postseason history suggests they should have reason for concern as they prepare for a fifth and deciding game against the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. The Tribe has lost five straight potential postseason series clinchers and 16 of its past 19 such games since 1999.
Pardon the Cleveland players if they don’t treat that ominous track record as an emotional anchor around their necks. The Indians will be playing at home Wednesday night behind Corey Kluber, and those two factors are enough for one new arrival to think they’re in the driver’s seat.
“He’s a heck of a driver,” outfielder Jay Bruce said of Kluber.
Kluber’s long- and short-term résumé suggests he’s not an opponent that anyone would relish facing in a win-or-go-home game. He led MLB starters this year in WHIP (0.87), ERA (2.25), quality start percentage (76 percent), strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.36-1) and OPS against (.556), and he applied a one-man full-court press in August and September to overtake Boston’s Chris Sale in the AL Cy Young Award race.
When Cleveland manager Terry Francona strayed from convention and started Trevor Bauer in the division series opener, he gave the Indians a cushion at the back end with the knowledge that Kluber would be pitching on full rest in Games 2 and 5. But Kluber threw a glitch into the game plan when bombed in his first start at Progressive Field on Friday. He failed to develop any kind of rhythm on the mound, threw an uncharacteristically low 45 strikes among his 76 pitches and lasted a mere 2⅔ innings in a game Cleveland rallied to win 9-8.
Francona, from his vantage point in the dugout, noticed Kluber was sitting on his back side more than usual and seemed out of sorts mechanically. Kluber tried to work out the kinks with pitching coach Mickey Callaway in his between-starts side session, and he’s ready to try to rectify everything that went wrong in Game 2.
“I didn’t pitch well, didn’t have good command, didn’t throw the ball where I wanted to,” Kluber said. “So that’s kind of what it boils down to.”
While there’s a natural inclination to think Kluber will be extra motivated to bounce back from a rare downer of a day, he never strays from his approach regardless of the circumstances. When the Indians lined up for the opening introductions before ALDS Game 1 and the home crowd cheered wildly for him, Kluber didn’t smile, tip his cap or change his expression one iota. It was a snapshot of the demeanor he shows around the park from the first day of spring training until the Indians clean out their lockers at the end.
Yankees ace Luis Severino recovered from a horrific outing in the wild-card game against Minnesota to pitch well in ALDS Game 4 on Monday night, and the Indians expect a similar script from Kluber.
“He’ll be the same way he is when he’s going to lunch, or pitching in [smaller] games, whatever,” center fielder Jason Kipnis said. “He’ll be stoic, monotonous and very routine-oriented. I don’t think he’s going to go into this start looking to change everything he’s done just because they got to him in the first game.
“What he does works. I think he’s just going to be sharper. He’s going to have a game plan and adjust accordingly. I think he’s going to be ready.”
The Indians have the luxury of knowing that the bullpen tandem of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen will be rested and ready to go in the late innings. Allen has been sharp against the Yankees — with six strikeouts in 4 1/3 shutout innings — and the Indians’ faith in Miller wasn’t tested in the least by Greg Bird‘s solo homer off him in New York’s 1-0 victory Sunday.
The challenge for Cleveland will be mounting enough offense to avoid playing catch-up against New York’s dominant bullpen. The Indians struck out 25 times in back-to-back losses in New York, and several Cleveland hitters appear to be pressing in the absence of designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, whose ankle injury kept him pinned to the bench in the Bronx. The Indians have hit .173 as a team with 46 strikeouts in 133 at-bats through the first four games of the series.
If Encarnacion is able to return to the lineup for Game 5 as Francona expects, it will help provide a tangible and emotional lift for the Indians. They’ll also have the support of a home crowd that got all dolled up in red during the first leg of the series and is hungry for the city’s first World Series title in 69 years.
The Indians posted a better record on the road (53-28) than at home (49-32) this season, logged a slightly better OPS (.793 to .782) and hit more home runs away from Progressive Field. But regular-season numbers are secondary to the sense of comfort they’ll feel upon returning to their usual routines in the lead-up to Game 5.
It all begins with Kluber, who has a way of injecting confidence throughout a clubhouse on the days he pitches. Few nicknames in baseball convey a better sense of what a player is all about than “Klubot.”
“What we’ve come to expect out of Corey is excellence,” Bruce said, “and I think he expects that out of himself. The other day, baseball happened. He didn’t throw eight shutout innings and strike out everyone like he usually does. But he’ll be ready to go. We couldn’t ask for a better guy to be on the mound.”
As the Yankees closed out their 7-3 victory in the Bronx late Monday night, a hearty group of fans behind home plate broke into a chant of “We want Kluber!”
They’ll get their wish Wednesday night. If the Yankees want to advance and play Houston for the pennant, they’ll have to beat the best that Cleveland and the American League have to offer.