CLEVELAND—Corey Kluber smiled, which if you know even a little bit about the Indians' stoic ace is the rough equivalent of a Haley’s comet sighting, a Thomas Pynchon book tour or a Cleveland professional sports championship. But yes, there it was—a smile in the Indians' bullpen before World Series Game 1 on Tuesday night just after he threw his last warmup pitch to battery-mate Roberto Perez.
“When you can make the ball move like that,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said, “you should smile. Yes, I saw it. I could tell right away. You could definitely tell the movement he had today from the bullpen.”
The story of Game 1, a 6–0 Cleveland victory, was that the Cubs had no chance against Kluber—none. There is not another pitcher alive who can throw the baseball at 92–94 mph—above-average velocity—and make it move, on average, eight inches from his glove side to his arm side.
“No, I don’t think anybody else can,” Callaway said.
“Hitters can’t swing at it and they really can’t take it like it’s going to be a ball," said backup Indians catcher Chris Gimenez. "I’m sorry, you’re screwed either way. We were watching in the video room, and it was crazy what he was doing. You just don’t see a ball moving that much, that fast, that late—not when it’s moving eight to 10 inches, and not until the last eight to 10 feet.”
In six innings, Kluber threw 30 sinkers, which is a misnomer because his two-seam fastball runs more than it sinks. Twenty-four of those 30 sinkers were strikes—an astounding percentage for anyone, but especially for someone with so much movement. Kluber obtained 24 called strikes, most of which occurred on pitches Cubs hitters were certain would stay far out of the zone, only to come darting back over the plate.
Three men iced down after this game: Jon Lester, the losing pitcher; Kluber; and Larry Vanover, the home plate umpire who practically strained a right rotator cuff calling strikes.
Kluber has pitched in 143 major league games, postseason included. Never before did he obtain so many called strikes in so few innings. His insane movement at peak velocity produced one of the greatest pitching lines in World Series history: no runs, no walks and nine strikeouts. Only one other pitcher in World Series history had struck out so many batters with no walks and no runs: Roger Clemens in Game 2 of the 2000 World Series for the Yankees.
“And [Kluber] did it against the best hitting team in the National League,” Gimenez reminded.
With relief help from Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, the Indians struck out 15 batters in a shutout, a feat accomplished only once before in World Series history: the iconic 17-strikeout game by Bob Gibson in the Busch Stadium shadows in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. Now the Indians look like they have themselves their own Gibson, an old-school workhorse who is lined up to start Games 1, 4 and 7 and has a postseason ERA after four starts of 0.74. No pitcher since Curt Schilling 15 years ago has started the first, fourth and seventh games of a World Series.
“I don't know if there is one thing you can put your finger on,” Kluber said of going all Gibsonian on October. “I think that it’s obviously there’s more riding on each game. So, not that there is less importance on a regular-season game, but it’s almost like you have that extra level of intensity or focus and stuff that it’s not really something you can replicate. If I had to guess, I'd say that.”
On nights like this, when under the brightest lights Kluber can make a baseball change direction at an elite speed, it’s worth remembering who he was four years ago: a 26-year-old–dead-ended Triple A pitcher whose four-seam fastball kept getting crushed. The previous season he was so bad that his minor league team, Columbus, didn’t bother using him in their playoffs. Three starters were ahead of him on the depth chart—none of whom made it to the major leagues.
In May of 2012, with Kluber nursing an ERA near five, rain forced him indoors for a bullpen session. Columbus pitching coach Ruben Niebla and Callaway, then the organization’s roving pitching instructor, told Kluber he ought to try throwing a two-seamer instead of a four-seamer. Kluber took to it instantly. In his next start, he threw 31 strikes with 34 sinkers. In two years time, he was a Cy Young Award winner.
“Corey could always throw his cutter and curve in the strike zone,” Callaway said. “He’s a lot like Bubba Watson, who has to hit his fade off the tee to get it in the fairway. If you ask him to hit it dead straight he’s probably going to miss the fairway. That’s Corey. He has a better feel when the ball is moving to get it over the plate.”
The two-seam fastball saved Kluber’s career. And for one night, the world began to learn more about his incredible ability to make the ball move like nobody else.
“We all know it,” Gimenez said. “But one thing I’m happy about is that so many people now are seeing the kind of elite stuff this staff has.”
The Indians are the worst-case scenario matchup for the Cubs for two reasons. One, they are the best base-running team in the American League, and they will disrupt a Cubs staff that is poor at defending the running game. Two, they are elite at spinning the baseball, and the Cubs’ hitters would much rather hit against velocity than movement. The trouble spots are obvious for Chicago: Kluber’s breaking ball (which actually was rather ordinary in Game 1); Trevor Bauer’s hammer of a curveball; Josh Tomlin’s curveball; Miller’s slider and Allen’s curveball.
Cleveland dismantled Toronto, a pure fastball-hitting team, by spinning the ball often, especially in hitter’s counts. The Cubs fit the same profile as the Blue Jays: They crush fastballs and are below mediocre at curveballs. The Indians’ ability to spin the ball at an elite level is a bad matchup for Chicago.
Kluber’s two-seamer didn’t figure to be that kind of a weapon against Chicago, but it spun so fast and moved so much it almost took on the characteristics of a breaking ball.
Game 1 was full of surprises. Roberto Perez, a 33rd-round draft pick who hit .183 this year as a backup catcher, propelled himself into World Series lore by slamming two home runs, joining true sluggers Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome as the only Indians to crank multiple homers in a World Series game. Cubs designated hitter Kyle “The Natural” Schwarber whacked a double off the wall, walked and saw 18 pitches in four terrific plate appearances—his first against major league pitching in 201 days.
In the first World Series game ever with two starting shortstops no older than 22, Francisco Lindor rattled three hits around Progressive Field with a short, compact stroke that defined his ease and comfort on the big stage. (His counterpart, Addison Russell, revealed his anxiety with four empty at-bats in which he was gone after a combined 11 pitches, three of them by way of strikeouts.)
But nothing was more impactful or jaw-dropping than the way Kluber made the ball move.
“To win a World Series,” Callaway said, “somebody has to step up and do something special, like [Madison] Bumgarner did for the Giants.”
Only one game into this World Series, with as many as two starts on short rest to follow, Kluber has all the makings of that kind of player. If he does so—if he keeps throwing the baseball with the kind of sorcery that he did in Game 1—there is one great big smile waiting for all to see at the end of this.