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Corey Kluber collapses, Cleveland Indians look flat: Terry Pluto

HOUSTON — For the Indians, here’s the problem . . .

The team can make a bold move to add three-time All-Star Josh Donaldson to the roster in September.

They can trade for All-Star closer Brad Hand at midseason.

They can put Trevor Bauer in the bullpen, the “wild card” as Manager Terry Francona called it.

But if Corey Kluber is going to pitch like this . .  .

That’s what I was thinking as Kluber left the mound, head down and a blank stare on his face. He was shelled for four runs, including three solo homers, in 4 2/3 innings.

If Kluber can’t be Kluber, the Indians are in huge trouble in this best-of-five American League Division Series.

That’s the painful lesson from the Indians’ 7-2 loss to Houston in Friday’s opener.

In the first six games of his post-season career (all in 2016), Kluber was 4-1 with an 0.89 ERA.

Starting with Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, Kluber is 0-2 with a 10.20 ERA in four starts. He’s been pounded for nine homers in 15 innings. Those numbers came from Jayson Stark of the The Athletic.

WHAT’S WITH KLUBER?

But the hard, cold stats don’t reveal the impact of Kluber’s collapse has on the team in a short-series. When your 20-game winner gives up four runs so quickly in a game of this magnitude, it’s discouraging for the entire team.

The Indians were behind 4-0 in the fifth inning.

The Astros are the defending World Series champs. They had a 103-59 record this season, second best in the Majors.

To ambush them, the Indians needed Kluber to put zeros up on the scoreboard.

But he looked like the same Kluber who was knocked around twice by the Yankees in the 2017 ALDS.

His fastball wasn’t much above 91 mph. He was throwing a lot of breaking pitches, trying to hit the corners.

Kluber’s velocity was down a bit in September, in the 90-mph range. 

Before the game, Manager Terry Francona said, “I look more at movement. It could be 91, but look like 100 mph.”

But Kluber’s pitches were flat. He seemed to throwing more sidearm than normal.

In the second inning, he hit two batters. All season, Kluber hit only three batters.

Something was wrong. During the All-Star break, he took an injection in his knee to deal with some inflammation.

He’s supposed be healthy. Francona said as much after the game.

As for the post-season struggles, Francona said, “That was last year, it had nothing to do with today.”

I don’t have any answers for Kluber’s highly questionable performance.

I just know he wasn’t the same confident Kluber who has been so steely strong for the Tribe for so long.

“I made some mistakes to the wrong guys,” said Kluber.

A couple of times, he mentioned making a few bad pitches.

“I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but that was it,” he said.

As usual, a “dead horse” reference tends to end most interviews.

DEALING WITH PRESSURE

Houston starter Justin Verlander came into the game knowing the Indians have tormented him over the years.

The future Hall of Famer had a 2-8 record and 5.76 ERA against the Tribe in the previous four years.

“He circled this date on his calendar,” Houston Manager A.J. Hinch said Thursday.

Verlander wanted to opener against the Tribe because he long to change his personal history.

Verlander opened with five hitless innings. By the time he took the mound in the sixth, Houston had a 4-0 lead.

Verlander got only one more out, but gave his team what it needed — five dominating innings.

Then the Astros bullpen went to work.

If Kluber had been better, I’d be dwelling more on how the Tribe hitters looked so overwhelmed. They had only three hits and never put any pressure on Houston.

But the story of the day was Kluber, and it was a depressing one.

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