Breakdown: Corey Kluber two-seamer clinic the difference in Game 1 of World Series
How a pitch that was already nasty back in May became downright illegal in October
CLEVELAND -- Try as they might, baseball executives can rarely predict the moves that will transform a franchise.
For the Cleveland Indians, that move happened on July 31, 2010. Leading up to the trade deadline that year, the contending San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals both hoped to upgrade their rosters for a playoff run. The Friars sought an outfielder who could hit, while the Cardinals wanted a veteran starting pitcher who could continue the team's successful tradition of tough-to-hit sinkerballers.
To facilitate the trade, the two teams looped in the Tribe, who'd offer up soon-to-walk right-hander Jake Westbrook in order to could get anything half-decent in return. The Padres offered Corey Kluber, a 24-year-old right-hander who couldn't even crack the team's list of top 30 prospects.
On Tuesday night, in front of a frenzied, sellout crowd at Progressive Field, the deadline deal throw-in brought the National League's best offense to its knees. Fueled by Kluber's six masterful shutout innings, the Indians whitewashed the Cubs 6-0 on Tuesday night.
And in another nod to the you-never-know nature of baseball, the man who gave the Indians one of the best pitchers in franchise history and a terrifying ace to battle in the World Series was in attendance at Progressive Field. The Padres general manager six years ago, now-Cubs GM Jed Hoyer could only watch as a long-ago July afterthought brought his new team to its knees.
Kluber's best pitch, on most nights, is his devastating breaking ball. No one's quite sure exactly what that pitch is: Pitching analysis site Brooks Baseball alternates between calling it a slider. PITCHf/x often classifies it as a curve. Kluber himself won't give the pitch a specific label. Whatever you want to call it, it's probably the best breaking pitch that any starting pitcher on Earth can throw.
That wasn't what made Kluber great as the Indians moved to three wins away from their first World Series title in 68 years. On a coat-and-gloves late-October night in Cleveland, the Indians ace did a pretty mean imitation of Greg Maddux.
Invoking one of the five greatest pitchers in baseball history might seem like a stretch, even for a former Cy Young winner like Kluber. But against the Cubs' powerful lineup, Kluber turned his two-seam fastball into Fred Astaire. The ace right-hander imbued the pitch with enough pixie dust to make it dance away from hitters with wicked, screwball action. Then, once hitters started looking away, Kluber hit 'em with the Maddux special: The backdoor two-seamer, a mesmerizing pitch that starts inside a few inches off the plate, then breaks back at the last second to clip the inside corner and break hitters' hearts.
Thing is, Kluber mixed his pitches and pitch location so well, few Cubs had any clue what was coming, and even fewer knew where that pitch would end up.
Kluber wasted no time chopping down Cubs hitters. Dexter Fowler worked a 2-2 count to start the game, then watched helplessly as Kluber dropped the Maddux hammer on him, a two-seamer that made Chicago's skilled leadoff hitter jerk his lower body out of the way, even as the pitch edged the inside black for called strike three. Kris Bryant would become Kluber's second strikeout victim, taking strike three on another two-seamer that probably missed the corner by an inch or two but earned the strikeout anyway, eliciting an incredulous look from Cubs manager Joe Maddon. (Home plate umpire Larry Vanover did miss a few calls, though PITCHf/x suggests his strike zone wasn't as bad as it looked on TV.) But the highlight of that at-bat with a 1-0 breaking ball/slider/curve/whatchamacallit that made this year's likely NL MVP look like a Little Leaguer.
That marked the start of an incredible run for Kluber, one that saw him set a new World Series record with eight strikeouts in his first three innings. A handful of Kluber's best pitches were cutters and breaking balls, such as this beauty to surprise Game 1 starter Kyle Schwarber, this bit of filth against Javier Baez, and this you-can't-be-serious offering to Anthony Rizzo.
But those were just hors d'oeuvres for the delicious main course: A two-seamer clinic that would make the Mad Dog proud. Watch Schwarber and Fowler whiff, and Rizzo pop out two straight times on that pitch, and you knew you were witnessing greatness. Watch the back-door two-seamer vaporize Baez and the front-door version of the same pitch bamboozle Coghlan, and you'd have thought the Halloween ghouls came out a few days early. Coghlan flinched so badly on one second-inning two-seamer, you just wanted to give the poor guy a hug.
The final line for Kluber read six-plus innings, no runs, four hits, no walks and nine strikeouts. After his early strikeout barrage, Kluber grew more efficient in his later innings, too, checking out of the game after just 88 pitches and setting up a scenario where he could plausibly start Game 4 without excessive fears of fatigue. That's bad news for a Cubs team that could feast on Cleveland's lesser starters, but could also have its hands full if Kluber pitches twice in the first four games ... and possibly three times if the series goes the distance.
There were other memorable moments from this game, to be sure. Roberto Perez set all kinds of history, becoming the first Indians player to ever hit two homers in a World Series game, the first hitter since Troy Glaus 14 years ago to homer twice in his first-ever World Series game, and also the worst hitter ever to homer twice in a World Series game. Of the 184 American League hitters with as many plate appearances as he had this year, Perez ranked ... 181st in slugging percentage (.294). Andrew Miller looked worse than he has all postseason, putting four runners on base ... and yet, he still blazed through two scoreless innings, including a nail-biter of a seventh that ended with third catcher David Ross oddly staying in the game to strike out with the bases loaded against the big lefty relief ace. On the losers' side, Schwarber impressed in his first time on the field in more than six months, reaching base twice and smashing the hardest-hit ball of any Cubs hitter, a screamer off the right-field wall in the fourth that nearly left the yard. And in the end, Terry Francona won yet another World Series game, upping his lifetime record as a Fall Classic skipper to a sparkling 9-0.
Still, the night belonged to the Indians' stoic ace. He's cranked up the vertical movement on his two-seamer during the playoffs, to the point that it's getting an extra two inches of break this month, making it a beast for opposing hitters to handle. That's how a pitch that's already nasty back in May becomes downright lethal in October.
When Francona popped out of the dugout following Ben Zobrist's leadoff single in the seventh, you would've figured that Kluber would maintain his usual stone face as he walked off the mound, even as the crowd screamed its approval and the theme from "The Natural" blared over the PA system. Instead, he actually cracked a little smile as he approached the dugout. When Miller escaped the bases-loaded jam to extinguish the Cubs' best hope, the man lovingly called Klubot threw us a shocker, getting legitimately fired up.
If there was ever a night for him to show that kind of emotion, this was it. Throw an ugly sweater on the guy and dial up a few choice clubhouse pranks, and for one night, the transformation into 2016 Greg Maddux would be complete.
Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com contributed extensive research for this article.
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