It was supposed to be Felix Hernandez’s night, and in a way it still was. The Mariners' ace entered Wednesday’s game against the Indians with a chance to break Tom Seaver’s record of 13 consecutive starts with seven or more innings pitched and two or fewer runs allowed. Before dismissing that as a factoid engineered by a stats geek, consider the sustained run of dominance the record would indicate. Starts that satisfy those parameters might not seem that different from the usual benchmark for strong pitching – the quality start, as is named an outing of six or more innings and three or fewer runs – but it turns out that they are much, much more difficult to put together. You might call them “luxury starts.”
Of the 3,186 starts made by major league pitchers before Wednesday, 1,688 of them – nearly 53% - qualified as quality starts. Add one inning to, and cut one run from, the definition, and just 788, or under 25%, qualified. Think about what it takes to be able to do that every time out, without fail, for two and a half months, as Hernandez had entering Wednesday night.
The thing was that on Wednesday Felix actually got the record – one that is not among the game’s most hallowed, but still demonstrates the kind of historically dominant pitcher that he is. He retired the Indians’ first 12 hitters, and seemed so untouchable that after walking the first man he faced in the fifth, the next guy up – Lonnie Chisenhall, who is not only lefthanded but batting .309 – actually tried bunting the first pitch he saw. Chisenhall fouled it off, and that was lucky, because four pitches later he lined a double to right, sparking an inning in which the Indians scored their allotted two runs. Those were the only runs Cleveland mustered against Hernandez in his seven innings of work. He had the record. What he did not end up with was the win.
That was mostly due to the efforts of the opposing starter on Wednesday, the Indians’ Corey Kluber. Kluber does not have Hernandez’s public profile, and there are a few reasons for that. One is that while Hernandez has been a phenom – the King – since he was a teenager, Kluber was hardly any good until last season, when he was already 27 years old. (Prior to 2013, Kluber had a big league record of 2-5, and an ERA of 5.35.)
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Another is that while Hernandez has a charismatic persona, both on the mound and off, Kluber is so notably undemonstrative that internet-savvy Tribe fans have begun to produce memes that reflect just how undemonstrative he is.
Even so, thanks in large measure to his late mastery of three pitches – a sinker that hits 94 MPH, a cutter and a slurve – the righthanded Kluber has quietly become one of the game’s aces. According to Fan Graphs, entering Wednesday he trailed only Hernandez and Jon Lester in WAR among pitchers, and he showed why on a night on which he outdueled the King.
The normally lefty-heavy Mariners really tried to stack the deck against Kluber – of the 28 at-bats they took against him, 25 came from the left side of the plate – but Kluber doesn’t have much of a problem against lefties (they were batting .262 against him on the season). Kluber allowed three hits, all of them singles, and no walks to go along with eight strikeouts in his complete game, 2-0 victory. He needed just 85 pitches to do it, the fewest delivered by any pitcher in a nine-inning complete game since 2012. He threw eight pitches or fewer in five of his frames.
In his postgame interview, Kluber, after throwing the game of his life, displayed as much emotion as he usually does. If the corners of his mouth curled even a little bit, it was only for an instant. “They’re a really aggressive lineup, so it’s one of those things where I established early that I was going to be in the zone,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the Indians traded last year’s ace, Justin Masterson, to the Cardinals, and the interviewer tried her best to get Kluber to suggest that he was now the team's No. 1 starter. She wondered if that might have given him some additional motivation. Kluber wouldn’t bite. “Not really,” Kluber said. “I didn’t try to do anything different from what I normally do. Pitch as long as I can until Tito” – manager Terry Francona – “takes the ball from me.”
Tito, of course, had no reason to take the ball from Kluber on Wednesday, and he hasn’t had much cause to do so for most of the season. Since May 1, Kluber has made 10 “luxury starts” of his own, and he is now sixth in the A.L.’s wins (11, against six losses), sixth in ERA (2.61), third in strikeouts (170) and third in innings pitched (158.1).
Ever since the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka hit the disabled list three weeks ago with a partially torn UCL, Hernandez has been the A.L.’s clear Cy Young favorite, and potential trades of Lester and David Price to the N.L. would only improve his chances. He would be deserving: he is 11-3 with a 2.01 ERA, and now he has a new all-time record on his résumé. Wednesday night, however, might be considered the one on which a darkhorse candidate entered the race.