Tuesday night was a big one for two of the AL's top Cy Young contenders. In Tampa Bay, the Red Sox's Chris Sale matched his season high with 13 strikeouts in eight innings of two-hit shutout ball against the Rays, and in Cleveland, the Indians' Corey Kluber three-hit the Rockies with 11 strikeouts, while his teammates rallied for a walk-off win. Both aces furthered significant strikeout streaks in the process.
After allowing a season-high seven runs in his last start against the Indians on Aug. 1, Sale was absolutely stifling in this one. The 28-year-old southpaw held the Rays hitless through 4 1/3 innings, never allowed a runner to reach second base and allowed just four on base all night: Trevor Plouffe reached on a throwing error by third baseman Rafael Devers with one out in the fourth, Wilson Ramos singled up the middle with one out in the fifth, Peter Bourjos singled with one out in the sixth and Logan Morrison walked to start the seventh.
Sale struck out every member of the Rays lineup at least once; Bourjos whiffed three times. He consistently got ahead in the count, throwing first-pitch strikes to 20 of 28 Rays. He netted 15 swings and misses, six via his slider and seven via his four-seam fastball, which Brooks Baseball calculated averaged 96.0 mph and went as high as 98.0; nine of his strikeouts were swinging, four against the slider and five against the fastball. He needed more than 12 pitches in an inning only in the third (16 pitches) fifth and sixth (22 pitches apiece). He finished the latter frame with a six-pitch strikeout of Plouffe and an eight-pitch strikeout of Evan Longoria.
It was a dominant performance, albeit against a team that came into the night with the AL's highest strikeout rate (25.1% of all plate appearances) and struck out 12 times in each of their previous three meetings with Sale this year, on April 15, May 13 and July 6. Via ESPN Stats and Info, Sale became the fourth pitcher to notch four straight games with at least 12 whiffs against a single opponent in a season. My own Baseball-Reference Play Index sleuthing reveals that the others are the Indians' Sam McDowell (1968 versus the A's), the Angels' Nolan Ryan (1973 versus the Twins) and Randy Johnson twice, first with the Mariners (1993 versus the A's) and again with the Diamondbacks (2001 versus the Padres).
Sale's 90 game score was his highest since April 15, 2016, when he put up a 92, also against the Rays, via a two-hit, no-walk, nine-strikeout complete game shutout. This time, with his pitch count at 112 through eight innings, Sale yielded to Craig Kimbrel to protect what had been a 1-0 lead since the fourth inning, when Boston scratched out a run via a walk, a single and a pair of fielder's choices against Rays starter Austin Pruitt. The Red Sox gave Kimbrel some breathing room in the top of the ninth when a trio of singles, the last by Jackie Bradley Jr., added a second run before Kimbrel struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth.
The outing kept Sale in position to win the majors' first Pitching Triple Crown since 2011, when Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw both did so. Sale leads the AL in wins (14), ERA (2.57) and strikeouts (229), not to mention innings (161 1/3), walk and strikeout rates (1.6 and 12.8 per per nine, respectively) and WAR (5.3).
For all of that, Sale isn't running away with the AL Cy Young just yet, because Kluber remains in the picture. The 31-year-old righty, who won the award in 2014, didn't hurt his chances Tuesday night despite serving up a solo homer to Charlie Blackmon on the second pitch of the game and a single to DJ LeMahieu on the fourth. Kluber retired the next 14 hitters he faced, and LeMahieu was thrown out stealing second; Raimel Tapia's leadoff single to start the sixth was the only other baserunner he allowed.
Via a season-high 26 swings and misses—including 13 with his curveball and eight with his cutter—from among his 106 pitches, Kluber struck out 11, including all three batters in the ninth. Seven of those 11 went down swinging at a curve. He victimized every Rockies player in the lineup except Tapia, the DH, and finished with an 88 game score, matching his second-best outing of the season; he posted a 92 against the Orioles on June 21.
Despite Kluber’s strong work against the Rockies, he and the Indians trailed 1–0 going into the bottom of the ninth, but Cleveland's offense rallied against Colorado closer Greg Holland via a pair of walks, a game-tying RBI single by Austin Jackson and a three-run homer by Yan Gomes.
Tuesday's outing was the fifth straight in which Kluber struck out at least 11, which puts him in some pretty cool company. Johnson did it three times in 1998 with the Mariners and in 2000 and '02 with the Diamondbacks; all of those were actually six-game streaks. Pedro Martinez had a five-game streak for the Expos in 1997 and a record eight-game streak for the Red Sox in '99. Ryan (1977 for the Angels), J.R. Richard (1979 for the Astros) and Sale (2015 for the White Sox) round out the list.
Via the outing—his fourth complete game of the season, matching a career high—Kluber ranks second in ERA (2.65) and WAR (5.0) and third in strikeouts (183), all despite missing four weeks in May due to a lower back strain. He had a 5.06 ERA at the time of the injury, and had reached double digits in strikeouts just once in six starts. In 13 turns since returning, he's posted a 1.70 ERA with 13.4 strikeouts per nine, reaching double digits 11 times, and failing to deliver a quality start just once. For the season, Kluber's 12 double-digit strikeout games are tied with the Nationals' Max Scherzer for second behind Sale's 15.
Obviously, there's still more baseball to be played before the Cy Young is decided, and other pitchers, such as the Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman and the Yankees' Luis Severino, are on the fringes of the race. But it's worth pondering the collision course that these two hurlers are on: If the season ended today, not only would the second-seeded Red Sox meet the third-seeded Indians in a rematch of last year’s Division Series, but Sale would likely oppose Kluber. Clear space on your calendar for Oct. 5.