Trevor Bauer

Another dominant effort from Corey Kluber shows rebuilding White Sox will have to solve Indians pitching to become future kings of AL Central

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USA TODAY

Another dominant effort from Corey Kluber shows rebuilding White Sox will have to solve Indians pitching to become future kings of AL Central

The best part of the White Sox final six games of the 2018 season? They won’t have to face Corey Kluber again.

Kluber’s dominance over the South Siders continued Monday night, the White Sox offense silenced against a Cleveland Indians pitching staff that could enter October as the American League’s most fearsome. Four Indians starters have hit the 200-strikeout mark this season, the first time a single staff has ever had that happen in baseball history. And a bullpen that’s underachieved statistically after a big-spending offseason still has Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to worry about.

Kluber added to his own big strikeout total with 11 against the White Sox. In four starts against the White Sox this season, Kluber racked up 39 strikeouts and allowed just three earned runs in 28 innings of work. He’s got 184 strikeouts against them in his career, more than any other opponent.

“Kluber did the same thing he’s continued to do,” White Sox skipper Rick Renteria said. “He attacks the strike zone, stays below the zone, ball fades out, works both sides of the plate, runs balls in, catches you locks you up, mixes his pitches well. He got us quite a few times and he just did what he does.

“He’s a Cy Young type pitcher. I think with guys like that, when you have certain opportunities — and you don’t get very many — you’ve got to be able to get at least one point across.”

This is no surprise, of course, one of the league’s top arms — a two-time Cy Young winner, including last year — having so much success against a lineup that’s missed the playoffs every season he’s been in the major leagues. But it shows how tricky it will be for the rebuilding White Sox to ascend to the top of the division. Not only do all the young hitters on the rise through the farm system need to figure out how to succeed at the big league level, they need to do it against some of the game’s best pitchers.

Kluber is under team control for another three seasons, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer for another two and Mike Clevinger for a whopping five seasons. The White Sox likely aren’t tailoring their rebuilding effort to the current kings of the Central. But they’ll one day need to overtake the Indians to get to the level they want to reach, and this collection of pitchers isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

This season alone, Indians pitchers have turned in eight double-digit strikeout performances against the White Sox.

Of course, the fearsome foursome of Cleveland pitchers should also give the White Sox plenty of hope. There’s a crowded list of names angling for spot in the rotation of the future on the South Side, which speaks to the pitching depth Rick Hahn has amassed in the farm system. Perhaps the likes of Michael Kopech, Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning can form a similarly talented group down the road.

Cleveland's captured three straight division titles. If the White Sox can form their own dazzling rotation, they'd be in position to attempt the same kind of feat.

But until that day comes, the Indians’ stellar starting staff will serve as a constant reminder of who the White Sox will need to pass on their planned journey to the top of the division and perennial contention.

The AL Central goes through Cleveland — for now, and perhaps for a while.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.

Cubs confident in Jon Lester with World Series on the line in Game 5

Cubs confident in Jon Lester with World Series on the line in Game 5

Jon Lester started a World Series clincher for the Boston Red Sox back in 2007, though his team ended that game celebrating a championship over the Colorado Rockies. This is a different scenario: After Saturday’s 7-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians, Lester will be pitching Sunday to keep his teams’ championship hopes alive. 

The Cubs sold Lester on leading a starting rotation to the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908, and his big-game experience and loads of playoff innings were a major reason why they shelled out $155 million to sign him in December 2014. Sunday will mark Lester’s 21st playoff appearance and 19th start, and he has a 2.60 ERA over his 124 2/3 postseason innings. 

With that experience comes a clear-headed mindset about how he’ll approach a critical start in Game 5. 

“It's hard enough to pitch this time of year or play this time of year and be successful,” Lester said. “I think if you're down 3-1 and you're going in there saying you have to do this, you have to do that to try to stay alive, I think you've kind of already been beaten, you know? You're not worried about the right thing.”

Lester slogged through a rough first inning in Game 1, issuing two walks and hitting Brandon Guyer with a pitch with the bases loaded. He settled down and only allowed a solo home run to catcher Roberto Perez and finished his night having allowed three runs on six hits with three walks and seven strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings, his shortest playoff outing since 2013 (a span of eight starts). 

“There are a few guys over there that I haven't faced a lot, if at all,” Lester said. “So you'll be able to draw from that information, make the adjustments that you need to make from the previous start and just kind of go from there.

“You still have to execute pitches no matter what the game plan is against guys. And the guys you've had success against, you just try to continue to have success against, and the guys you didn't, you try to make the adjustments off of that.”

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The Cubs believe Lester can return to form Sunday night in a pitching matchup that would seem to favor them, with Cleveland rolling with right-hander Trevor Bauer (3.2 IP, 6 H, 2 ER in Game 2) on three days’ rest. That belief, though, needs to become reality for the Cubs to at least send the series back to Cleveland. 

“Always, always confident, especially with Jonny going,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s going to sound cliche, obviously, but we feel good — we’re down 3-1 in the World Series, but we feel good about who we have on the mound tomorrow.”