KANSAS CITY — The American League Cy Young Award race is going to come down to volume versus value in the eyes of voters. It is no surprise that Indians ace Corey Kluber once again finds himself in the annual conversation.
In a 9-4 loss to the Royals on Saturday night, Kluber put the final touches on his Cy Young campaign, which will likely net a top-five finish rather than a third career plaque. Working on a limited pitch count, Kluber had mixed results in his final regular-season outing of 2018, walking away with a no-decision before the Tribe’s bullpen concerns returned.
“I’m going to always vote for Kluber,” manager Terry Francona said. “And I don’t apologize for that.”
Relief ace Andrew Miller and late-inning reliever Cody Allen combined to allow six runs across the sixth and seventh innings to help the Royals pull away. Both relievers have endured trying seasons, but they saw progress throughout the month of September. Over the past two games, though, the issues returned in the form of 10 combined runs allowed.
While the bullpen will continue to be a talking point in the days leading up to the AL Division Series against the Astros, the Indians can at least move forward knowing the rotation has been the roster’s strength. That starts at the top with Kluber, who is the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.
Kluber is currently lined up to be the Game 1 starter on Friday at Minute Maid Park.
“He’ll take the ball on Friday,” Francona said. “And that’s a big honor in itself, and he knows that. But, he’s the guy we want to lead our staff.”
Limited to 80 pitches on Saturday, Kluber was charged with three runs on seven hits in five innings for the AL Central champions. One run scored on a bloop single by Meibrys Viloria in the second and two more crossed the plate on a Whit Merrifield double in the fourth that bounced off right fielder Melky Cabrera‘s glove.
Against Royals righty Jakob Junis, the Indians managed three runs over six innings. Tribe slugger Jose Ramirez also launched a solo homer off reliever Kevin McCarthy in the eighth, marking the 39th shot of the season for the second baseman. Ramirez, who finished the night a triple shy of a cycle, entered the game batting .164 with one homer in 35 games dating back to Aug. 19, when his season average last stood at .300.
“He just hit one the way you’re supposed to,” Francona said of Ramirez’s home run. “That was so pretty.”
Kluber ended with six strikeouts and two walks in the performance, giving him 222 strikeouts vs. 34 walks on the season across his 33 starts. Overall, he finishes the regular season 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA in an AL-leading 215 innings. Kluber’s 4.0-percent walk rate is the lowest mark in the AL and his 5.6 WAR (per Fangraphs) ranks sixth overall.
“Innings pitched is important,” Kluber said. “I think that’s a reflection of being able to take the ball every fifth day or being able to work deep in the games, and hopefully give your team a chance to win. I think there’s value in that. I don’t think that it’s the be all, end all, but I think it’s important to be able to log a lot of innings.”
When it comes to wooing AL Cy Young voters, Kluber has competition.
Astros ace Justin Verlander started on Saturday and finished 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA in 214 innings, in which he struck out 290, walked 37 and posted an AL-high 6.8 WAR. Rays lefty Blake Snell is also very much in the mix, going 21-5 with a pristine 1.89 ERA in 180 2/3 innings.
Other candidates for the AL Cy Young Award include Boston’s Chris Sale (12-4, 2.11 ERA, 158 innings), Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer (12-6, 2.26 ERA in 171 1/3 innings) and Houston’s Gerrit Cole (15-5, 2.88 ERA in 200 1/3 innings).
“There’s something to be said for guys that face the lineup that third or fourth time,” Francona said. “That’s when the majority of damage gets done with pitchers. Guys like Kluber or Verlander, they kind of stay out there. So, I think there’s something to be said for that.”
“It wasn’t the easiest year [for Kluber],” the manager added later. “Not everybody gets to see it, but I do — how hard he works and how diligent he is. He finds a way, man, to be one of the best. We’re proud of him.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Miller unravels: Heading into the game against the Royals, Miller had a 2.37 ERA with 21 strikeouts against five walks in 19 innings, dating to Aug. 1. The lefty has looked solid in September, but he encountered a setback in the sixth. With two out, Miller issued a walk and then yielded four consecutive hits, including a three-run homer to Adalberto Mondesi and an RBI single to Ryan O’Hearn. The five hits were the most allowed by Miller in a single appearance since Sept. 8, 2011, when he was a starting pitcher for the Red Sox.
“I just didn’t think he leveraged the ball downhill quiet as well,” Francona said. “I think his stuff is still good and he got out to over 30 pitches again, which is really good. I just didn’t think he was quite as downhill as he’s been.”
Error in judgment: With two out, runners on the corners and Cleveland holding a 3-1 lead in the fourth, Merrifield lined a pitch from Kluber to right field. Cabrera broke in on the ball, tried to correct his route and then made a jumping attempt to catch the ball. On a play with a 99-percent catch probability, per Statcast™, the ball struck Cabrera’s glove and fell to the grass, allowing two runs to score on what was ruled a game-tying double.
“We didn’t finish some plays,” Francona said. “Shoot, it’s 3-1, and Melky kind of came in and then didn’t make the play, and that ended up being [two runs]. And then after that, the game got ugly.”
GOMES EXITS WITH INJURY
All-Star catcher Yan Gomes left Saturday night’s game in the third inning after hitting his right hand on Alex Gordon‘s bat. With none out, Mondesi attempted to steal second and Gordon swung at the pitch from Kluber. Gomes came up firing, hitting his throwing hand at full force as Gordon’s bat lingered behind him on his backswing. Gomes immediately exited the game and was replaced by backup Roberto Perez. The Indians announced that Gomes sustained a right thumb contusion and laceration, but X-rays came back negative for any structural damage. More >
“I think we kind of dodged a bullet there,” Francona said. “He got a couple stitches, but it’s just a contusion and the doctors feel like in a couple days, he’ll get the swelling out of there and all that stuff. He could play with the stitches, but I think they think they can have them out of there by Tuesday or Wednesday. Again, I’m sure he’s going to be sore for a few days, but it looks like he’s going to be OK.”
HE SAID IT
“I think you’ll be able to see the difference a little bit here. Maybe before, I wasn’t as focused and I was trying to hit the ball out a little bit too much. I just really don’t think I was as focused as much as I am now.” — Ramirez, on his recent slump, via team interpreter Will Clements
Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco (16-10, 3.42 ERA) will get the ball for the regular-season finale at 3:15 p.m. ET on Sunday against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Carrasco is scheduled to throw around 80 pitches in order to allow Trevor Bauer to enter in relief and build up his pitch count prior to the American League Division Series. Kansas City will counter with lefty Eric Skoglund (1-5, 5.40 ERA).