Roughed up in his previous four starts, reigning AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber got his groove back against the Cardinals on Wednesday night—and then some. Though his no-hit bid fell by the wayside in the seventh inning, his 18-strikeout performance was an outing for the ages, making history in multiple ways even if his departure after eight innings left a few loose ends.
Kluber struck out 18 of the 26 batters he faced and allowed just one hit, a single by Jhonny Peralta with two outs in the seventh. He didn't walk anybody, though he did hit Matt Holliday with a pitch in the first inning. That plunking triggered an apparently retaliatory salvo from Cardinals starter John Lackey, who hit Jason Kipnis in the fourth, which led to Cleveland manager Terry Francona's ejection, which in turn carried further ramifications.
Indeed, the lingering question is, what could have happened if Kluber had pitched the ninth? His pitch count through eight innings was just 113, a season high but not uncharted territory for the 29-year-old righty. He has gone past that mark five times in his career, four of which came last year, including a personal best of 120 on Sept. 21 against the Twins. In that game, he also threw eight innings while matching his previous career high of 14 strikeouts, which he set just five days earlier against the Astros. In fact, all of Kluber's outings of at least 110 pitches have been less than nine full innings, and only two of them saw him even face a batter in the ninth. The three complete games of his major league career, all in 2014, featured pitch counts of 85, 101 and 104.
Then again, the Indians came into the game just 11–20, and the fact that they were clinging to a 2–0 lead over the 22–10 Cardinals was more important than Kluber's individual achievement, particularly once the no-hitter went kaput. The decision not to send Kluber out for the ninth inning—which he would have begun by facing No. 9 hitter Peter Bourjos, whom he'd previously struck out twice on a total of eight pitches—fell to acting manager Brad Mills once Francona was ejected, and it doesn't sound as though he was being fed messages from the clubhouse via an intermediary. Via MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian, Francona defended the decision to pull Kluber:
"Millsy knows what he's doing," Francona said. "You can't manage with your heart. If you leave Kluber out there and he starts to run into a little bit of a mess, now he's up in the 120's and now you bring in [closer] Cody [Allen] and you've got traffic. You can't manage with your heart. That was a good move."
Allen was greeted with a shower of boos from the Cleveland crowd, which wanted more from the ace righty. "I thought they were just saying 'Kluuuuubes,'" he joked afterward.
No matter who gave Kluber the hook, the decision to do so was in line with Cleveland’s handling of pitchers in recent years. The high for any Indians pitcher this year is 115 (Danny Salazar, twice), and the only time one of them has thrown more than 120 in a game since the start of the 2010 season was on May 15, 2012, when Derek Lowe needed 127 pitches to complete a shutout of the Twins. The 39-year-old Lowe was at 108 pitches through eight innings in a 5–0 game that night; he then needed 19 pitches to work around a walk and a single to complete what would be the final complete game of his career.
Even if the decision to remove Kluber was in keeping with the club's recent history, it's tantalizing to think about what he might have done with a longer leash, and the company he could have joined. With one strikeout, not only would he have set the Indians' single-game record for a nine-inning contest (more on which momentarily), but he also would have become the 10th pitcher in major league history to reach 19, and the seventh to do so in a nine-inning game. The last time that happened came on Aug. 8, 1997, when Randy Johnson did it for the Mariners against the White Sox in a 148-pitch performance. Had Kluber, who had yet to walk a hitter, notched another strikeout without walking anyone (a situation that probably would have ended his night had he been allowed to continue in the first place), he would have matched Johnson's June 24, 1997 outing against the Athletics, though the Big Unit allowed 11 hits and four runs in that game.
With two strikeouts, Kluber would have become the fourth pitcher to reach 20 in a game. Roger Clemens did it twice for the Red Sox, in 1986 and '96, Kerry Wood did it for the Cubs on May 6, 1998 and Johnson did so for the Diamondbacks on May 8, 2001 for the Diamondbacks. Remarkably, none of those pitchers walked a batter, either. There was no official pitch count for Clemens' 20-strikeout effort on April 29, 1986 for Boston against the Mariners, but he went to 151 while whiffing 20 Tigers on Sept. 18, 1996. Wood needed just 122 pitches for his 20-K game against the Astros, which was also a one-hitter with a hit-by pitch. Johnson needed only 124 in his 20-K outing against the Reds.
Kluber's 18 strikeouts tied Bob Feller's franchise record for a nine-inning game, set on Oct. 2, 1938 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Tigers. Still one month short of his 20th birthday (!) yet nearing the end of his third major league season (!!), Rapid Robert actually lost that contest, allowing four runs and seven hits while walking seven. One can only wonder what his pitch count might have been, but considering that he threw 20 complete games in 36 starts and led the league in both walks (208, 6.7 per nine) and strikeouts (240, 7.8 per nine) that year, the same can be said for just about any of his starts. Likewise for the pitch count of Luis Tiant, whose franchise-record 19 strikeouts in a 10-inning, six-hit shutout on July 3, 1968 against the Twins were probably far beyond today's standards.
What's more, Kluber's 18 strikeouts were the most in a major league game since May 16, 2004, when the Brewers' Ben Sheets whiffed 18 Braves. Sheets worked all nine innings and allowed three hits, one walk and one run, but he was a model of efficiency, needing just 116 pitches to do so, the fewest among the seven 18-strikeout games in MLB history for which we have pitch-count numbers (there have been 15 in all). The most on record for an 18-strikeout game is 160, by Randy Johnson in a 3–2 loss to the Rangers on Sept. 27, 1992, but for any 18-K game, the record may actually belong to Warren Spahn, who did so over 15 innings, with 10 hits and two walks. Johnson's 160-pitch slog also stands as the only other 18-strikeout performance of fewer than nine innings.
In terms of Game Score—the Bill James formula that credits and debits various outcomes in a pitcher's line score for comparative purposes, with 50 being average—Kluber scored a 98. That's the highest for a game this year, surpassing the 89 of Giants starter Chris Heston against the Astros just a day earlier; Heston allowed two hits and one run, walking nobody and striking out 10. Kluber's is also the highest score in the majors since last Aug, 26, when a slightly more familiar Giant, Madison Bumgarner, whiffed 13 without a walk in a one-hit shutout against the Rockies. The last time a pitcher surpassed 98 was last June 18 in Clayton Kershaw's 15-strikeout, no-walk no-hitter against the Rockies, which scored a 102. Kluber’s 98 was the highest Game Score by an Indian since Tiant scored a 99 with the aforementioned 19-K outing. No Indian has surpassed 98 in a nine-inning game, but Kluber is in especially good company, having matched Dennis Eckersley's May 30, 1977 no-hitter against the Angels and Len Barker's May 15, 1981 perfect game against the Blue Jays.
Finally, we come to the patch that Kluber can calls his own: the holder of the highest Game Score of any start of fewer than nine innings:
|Yu Darvish||4/2/13||TEX-HOU||8 2/3||1||0||14||96|
|Nolan Ryan||7/7/91||TEX-CAL||8 1/3||2||1||14||92|
Darvish's game, you may recall, was one in which he came within one batter of a perfect game but was pulled after allowing a single to Marwin Gonzalez. He and the 1991 version of Nolan Ryan were the only pitchers from the group above who even faced batters in the ninth, the rest having called it a night.
Complete game or no, Wednesday’s outing had to come as a relief for Kluber and the Indians. He came in carrying an ERA of 5.04, having been rocked for 22 runs (19 earned) in 23 innings over his previous four starts. He hadn’t pitched a quality start or one in which he allowed fewer hits than innings pitched since April 17, and what’s more, the Indians had gone 0–7 in his previous starts. If they’re to contend for a playoff spot—as many at SI expected (yours truly included)—this may stand as quite a turning point.