TORONTO -- Corey Kluber won the American League Cy Young Award in 2014 and made his first career All-Star team this season. But as he stands on the precipice of his biggest career achievement -- pitching the Cleveland Indians into the World Series -- perhaps no endorsement resonates more than the one he received in an exhausted, exultant visitors clubhouse at Rogers Centre late Monday night.
He has been gifted with the Andrew Miller seal of approval.
The Indians took a 3-0 American League Championship Series lead Monday with a 4-2 victory that was a tribute to tenacity and resolve. And now they’ll give the ball to Kluber, their undisputed ace for the past three seasons. As teammate after teammate observed, there’s no pitcher more competitive or prepared for the rigors of a big game.
Miller, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox from 2011 to 2014, went a step further in his assessment. He pronounced Kluber a dead ringer for Cubs lefty Jon Lester, whose 2.57 postseason ERA and two World Series rings are testament to his ability to man up in October.
"I even told my wife this," Miller said. "I can’t get past it. Other than the fact that one is left-handed and the other one is right-handed, I don’t think there’s a better comp in baseball. They’re just so focused on the task at hand. The mechanics are so clean and consistent, and they execute so many pitches so well. It’s almost like Corey’s comeback two-seam fastball is Jon’s backdoor cutter.
"I don’t think the handedness matters. They’re horses. They’re competitors. They want the ball. Every team in baseball would want to have them as the No. 1 on their pitching staff. I don’t think I can speak any higher of a pitcher than Jon Lester and what he’s done in the playoffs. But I’ll take Corey Kluber any day of the week."
Kluber is in a spot to wrap it up because the Indians crafted a winning narrative that was far-fetched even by their exacting standards. They had to rely on a parade of relievers after starter Trevor Bauer left with a pinkie finger spewing blood just three days after a drone-related accident. All their RBIs came from Jason Kipnis, Mike Napoli and Jose Ramirez, who entered Game 3 in a combined 0-for-19 funk. And just in case Indians manager Terry Francona hadn’t tormented the Jays with enough wedgies and noogies this series, he pulled a late switcheroo by bringing in Cody Allen, his closer, in the seventh inning, and using his setup man, Miller, to close.
This bizarre chain of events, which left the Jays demoralized and the Indians in a state of glassy-eyed euphoria, puts Toronto in a massive hole that’s even more daunting because of the identity of the man who will be flinging fastballs, cutters, curveballs and changeups in their direction Tuesday.
Cleveland’s front office has made a lot of astute moves in recent years. But one of the most enduring came at the July 2010 non-waiver trade deadline, when Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti acquired Kluber from San Diego as part of a three-way deal with St. Louis. Since the start of the 2014 season, Kluber ranks sixth in the majors in starts (98) and fourth in innings pitched (672 ⅔), and he’s second to Max Scherzer in strikeouts with 741.
"I think anybody who’s been around Corey knows that he’s relentless in his drive to improve and get better," Antonetti said. "Every single year, every single day he’s looking at, 'How do I become a better pitcher? What can I do physically, mentally, on the mound to get better and be more effective?' That mindset has really had a huge impact and helped him evolve into the pitcher he’s become over the last few years."
Given the physical carnage inflicted upon Cleveland’s starters this season, Kluber should win an award just for remaining ambulatory. Carlos Carrasco is walking around with a splint from the fractured hand he suffered on a comebacker in mid-September. Danny Salazar has yet to return from a strained forearm. And the Indians’ latest trip to Bizarro Land came when Bauer left the mound looking like a man in need of a transfusion.
Amid the uncertainty, Francona has been forced to sift through an array of what-ifs that would make most managers' heads explode. He entered the Rogers Centre press room Monday afternoon and ran through all sorts of scenarios. If Bauer’s finger acted up and the Indians had to go to the bullpen early, Francona said Kluber would be the man in Game 4. If Bauer was able to go deeper in the game and save the pen, rookie Ryan Merritt would start Game 4 and Kluber would pitch Game 5.
Ultimately, the decision to pitch Kluber on short rest Tuesday was a function of attrition and necessity. Nothing more.
"If we don’t bring Corey back tomorrow and he pitches Game 5, we don’t have a starter for Game 7," Francona said. "I mean, we have to physically have a starter, so this is the best way to do it. It’s the only way to do it. There’s no other way around it. We don’t have another starter right now. It’s not that difficult."
Kluber has started 136 games between the regular season and the postseason, and he has never been asked to perform on short rest. The change in routine can have an impact on some pitchers, and it remains to be seen how Kluber maintains his stuff as his pitch count climbs and he enters his third trip through the Toronto batting order.
The only certainty is that Kluber and Kluber alone will know how he’s faring. He’ll provide no tips or tells if fatigue is setting in or the zip on his fastball is waning. He’ll just keep pitching, with his cap pulled low over the cold-blooded visage that prompted Indians beat writer Jordan Bastian to nickname him "Klubot."
"Good or bad, that’s his personality," Indians reliever Zach McAllister said. "People aren’t going to know if he made a mistake or he threw the ball exactly the way he wanted to. Some guys probably are better when they’re kind of stoic, and some guys need energy and have to let it out. Corey is one who’s kind of mastered his craft and his emotions."
Miller, who is carving out a nice little legacy of his own in Cleveland with his performance this October, takes note each day when he arrives at the park and sees Kluber bearing down on the most trivial and laborious activities.
"It’s every single day," Miller said. "You watch him play catch at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. My mind is all over the place and I’m bouncing around. Some days I’m good and some days I’m terrible. I don’t think there’s a day that he takes off five minutes from work. It clearly shows."
As the exhausted Indians reveled in their improbable Game 3 victory, Kluber already had returned to the team hotel for some peace and contemplation. It was fine for others to sing his praises and express faith in his abilities. He had a baseball game to pitch in a few hours, and that was the only thing that mattered.