CLEVELAND — Corey Kluber quickly took the shine off a moment 71 years in the making when he struck out Dexter Fowler looking to begin Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Progressive Field. He then struck out Kris Bryant, again on a called third strike, and induced the first of three uncharacteristic Anthony Rizzo pop-outs to sternly put the Cubs away in the first inning.
Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young winner and a 2016 All-Star, turned in a master-class outing against a Cubs lineup that’s oscillated between potent and putrid in the playoffs. The 30-year-old right-hander scattered four hits with no walks and a Cleveland Indians World Series record nine strikeouts over six shutout innings to set the stage for an emphatic 6-0 win.
“Just pretty much as dominant as one could be right there,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Hitting his spots, really didn’t make many mistakes or give us much to work with. But that’s what good pitchers do.”
Six of Kluber’s nine strikeouts were looking, and the Cubs watched 22 pitches be called for strikes. Kluber’s sinker was his most effective pitch, with Cubs hitters struggling to track its movement: According to BrooksBaseball.net, of the 30 sinkers he threw, 24 were for strikes but the Cubs only swung at 10 of them. Five of those 30 sinkers were put in play, and just one went for a hit — Kyle Schwarber’s near-home run in the fourth inning.
Kluber’s curveball became a nasty out-pitch as the game went on — the five whiffs he generated on it were the most of any pitch — and shortstop Addison Russell said his ability to vary the speeds on both his curveball and slider kept the Cubs’ lineup even more off-balance.
“Whenever he changes speeds off his slider and curveball and kind of deceives the (velocity) a little bit, deceives the movement on his breaking ball, it’s pretty tough to hit,” Russell said.
The Cubs will have to solve Kluber at least one more time in this series, with manager Terry Francona “strongly” considering starting him in Games 4 and 7, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney.
While both of those starts would come on three days rest, manager Terry Francona didn’t hesitate to start Kluber in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series with the Indians seeking a sweep. The Toronto Blue Jays got to him that day, at least by his standards — two runs on four hits with two walks, seven strikeouts and one home run in five innings — but he hasn’t allowed a run in any of his three postseason starts with at least four days rest.
Cubs hitters felt confident in their ability to bounce back from Tuesday’s loss, and Russell pointed to the Cubs having more success the second time they face a pitcher. At least in the National League Championship Series, that was true for Clayton Kershaw, who threw a shutout in Game 2 but allowed five runs in Game 6.
But the Cubs will have to find a way to cobble together some offense against Kluber, otherwise the Indians’ ace could be even more of an X-Factor in the World Series than lights-out reliever Andrew Miller.
“He’s really mastered the art of the sinker/slider on the outer half to righties and inner half to lefties,” catcher David Ross said. “He’s got a cutter in there too to keep you honest, and that ball was coming back there pretty good tonight. Really good movement on all his pitches. That’s why he’s a former Cy Young winner and their ace, he’s really, really good.”