Glaring downhill toward home plate, with his glove quietly resting above his belt, Corey Kluber went into his windup.
With a crowd of 2,633 fans rising to their feet at George M. Steinbrenner Field, Kluber delivered his best pitch of the night, a breaking ball slicing toward the back foot of Blue Jays outfielder Josh Palacios.
As the lefty whiffed on the pitch, Kluber was serenaded with one of the loudest roars of the entire spring thus far. The two-time Cy Young Award winner had completed two perfect innings in his spring training debut in pinstripes.
"I feel like it was pretty solid," Kluber said in a Zoom call after the game. "First and foremost, I think it was nice to get out there and face another team, fun to get out there and face another team."
After pitching a grand total of one inning in 2020 with the Texas Rangers due to a season-ending shoulder injury, question marks hung over Kluber this offseason as he searched for a new team. Could the right-hander return to the perennial dominance he established with the Cleveland Indians not too long ago?
If Wednesday night was any indication—and it's far too early to tell for certain—New York may have gotten the steal of the offseason. Kluber mowed down the six hitters he faced, striking out three. The baseball didn't leave the infield.
"We've touched on it before, I don't think that I feel like I'm out there with any thoughts of the injuries or anything like that that I've dealt with in the past," Kluber said. "In my mind, I'm in a good spot. I'm just trying to prepare for the season the best I can."
With Aaron Boone on a brief medical leave of absence, undergoing surgery to get a pacemaker on Wednesday night, bench coach Carlos Mendoza was handling the managerial duties with Kluber on the mound.
"It was good to see him out there competing after going through the rehab process," Mendoza said after the Yankees closed out a 4-1 victory. "I thought his pitches were really good, movement on the cutter and slider, he threw a couple changeups, the fastball had life. He looked pretty good."
Kluber's first strikeout ended a nine-pitch first, getting first baseman Rowdy Tellez looking. Then, he started the second inning with a sweet two-pitch combo to sit down catcher Danny Jansen.
All the while, as advertised, Kluber was steady on the bump, working efficiently before slowly traipsing to New York's dugout at the end of each inning.
Kluber said he joked to his new teammates after the game that this was the first time he had faced an opposing lineup for two innings in close to two years. Even if it's been that long, Yankees' designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton wasn't surprised one bit by his performance.
"He's a dog out there," Stanton said. "I mean, he's gonna come pump the zone and carve up these hitters and not be fazed. I'd say that's the main thing I've taken from watching him over the years. He's just unfazed by whatever happens out there. Very poised."
As for what's next, with a month to go before the regular season, the 34-year-old said he'll focus on building endurance and fine-tuning his pitches. Eventually, he'll run into trouble this spring and get back to pitching in high-pressure situations, but for right now, he's focusing on the sequences and regaining his confidence and comfort on the mound.
Asked about pitching in Yankee Stadium in April, hearing the roar of a far bigger crowd in the Bronx, Kluber said he hadn't thought about his official Yankees debut just yet. Having fans back in the stands in Tampa, however, made this kind of night even more special.
"It is noticeable when there are fans, no matter how many," he said. "That buzz of the crowd or getting into it in certain situations. I probably didn't appreciate how much you notice that and pay attention to it until it gets taken away. But it was it was fun to have people in the stands out there."
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