CLEVELAND — Something had to be wrong with Indians ace Corey Kluber.
Not just his command, which lacked its typical precision.
The favorite to win his second Cy Young Award in four seasons doesn’t pitch like this.
He doesn’t get knocked out of two ALDS starts without seeing the fifth inning. He doesn’t allow nine earned runs in 6 1⁄3 innings of the series. He doesn’t create a pair of deficits for his teammates.
He doesn’t lose a decisive Game 5 to the New York Yankees on Wednesday while being outclassed by 300-pound, 37-year-old CC Sabathia in a 5-2 season-ending loss at Progressive Field.
“I think he’s fighting a lot, and I think you also have to respect the fact that guy wants to go out there and he’s our horse,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “And sometimes it doesn’t work.”
Kluber missed nearly all of May with a back injury. Francona gave the above answer when asked if the back bothered Kluber in October.
“I don’t think I need to get into details about anything,” Kluber said. “I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch.”
But even the stone-faced, don’t-concede anything Kluber admitted he wasn’t quite right.
“I don’t think anybody’s 100 percent at this point of the year,” he said. “But good enough to go out there and try to compete.”
Kluber was better Wednesday than he was in Game 2, when he allowed six runs in 22⁄3 innings of a remarkable 9-8 victory in 13 innings. But he was still gone after 11 outs and two home runs by shortstop Didi Gregorius that accounted for three runs in the first three innings.
“Two pitches really,” said Kluber, who allowed three runs and struck out six. “Two mistakes to Didi and I put two balls right in his bat path and he’s a good hitter and he hit two home runs.”
Francona went to left-handed relief ace Andrew Miller in the fourth inning — about four innings before the ideal scenario. He had no choice because his starting ace wasn’t himself.
Catcher Roberto Perez said Kluber started leaving the ball up and wasn’t as sharp as he normally is.
“But he’s a warrior, man, I’d take Corey any day over everybody,” he said.
Francona feels the same way. He didn’t start Kluber in Game 1 against the Yankees in part because he wanted him in case of a decisive Game 5.
The strategy didn’t work.
“It’s easy to second-guess in hindsight,” Kluber said. “If we would have won the series, people probably wouldn’t question it. I don’t think the guys in the clubhouse question him at all, and I think that’s all he cares about.”
The sample size of the postseason is so small and the microscope so large.
Kluber went 18-4 in the regular season with a league-leading 2.25 ERA and 265 strikeouts in 2032⁄3 innings. He allowed four earned runs in six September starts.
The lack of postseason success will be part of the lasting memories.
Kluber allowed a homer run for his third straight playoff start. The stretch began in Game 7 of the World Series last year.
Then Kluber was pitching on fumes, trying to give the Indians their first world title since 1948. He went only four innings in the extra-inning loss.
A lack of rest wasn’t the issue against the Yankees in either start.
Yet Kluber’s playoff numbers are trending in the wrong direction.
In his first five postseason starts — all last year — he pitched 30 1⁄3 innings and allowed three earned runs for a 0.89 ERA. In the last three, he’s gone 10 1⁄3 with 13 earned runs for an 11.32 ERA.
The Indians still trust in Kluber. But the version this October wasn’t the one they know and love.
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