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The moments that made Corey Kluber

He’s 23rd all time in team WAR, but we know him — let’s look at the moments that built his legacy

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

As we continue to explore the top WAR leaders in Cleveland baseball history, number 23 on the list finds a familiar face. Corey Kluber, earning 32.2 wins above replacement in his time with the Indians, was marvelous. The pair of Cy Youngs, the utter domination of a once villainous Tigers team, the rise from nowhere to ace of aces, he was a perfectly wonderful surprise whose greatness became as regular a piece of the summer as late sunsets and complaining about humidity.

We know Kluber, know who he is and where he came from. I thought I’d instead take a look at five of the most important moments of his career as an Indian, games that proved to define who he became, days where he made himself known, and memories we won’t be able to forget. You might remember other days, maybe I missed a few, but that’s the fun part about living through the career of such an all-time franchise great. He meant a lot to all of us, and each of us remember something special in our own way. Here’s mine.

July 7, 2013: Huh. This is actually pretty easy

After Kluber’s first 25 starts in the majors, you’d have been right to think he was nothing special. On July 2, 2013, he logged that 25th start, giving up four runs on four hits with two walks and three strikeouts in 5.1 innings against the Royals, earning himself a no-decision. The 2013 rotation was one defined by the three-headed monster of Justin Masterson, a suddenly in-control Ubaldo Jiménez, and the Scott Kazmir reclamation project. They were pretty good, Jiménez and Masterson with ERAs in the low- to mid-threes, Kazmir looking a bit like his old self with solid velocity and a ton of strikeouts.

The rest of the staff was two younger guys in Kluber and Zach McAllister. Nobody expected much from either of them or knew much about them for that matter. Honestly, they were about two of the most anonymous looking tall glasses of water you could hope to put in a baseball uniform. If anything, fans hoped that one of them would make a case for the back of the rotation.

Kluber to that point in his career held a 4.79 ERA over his first 148.1 innings after the four runs against Kansas City. So when he took the mound five days later against the reigning AL champion Tigers, a team that boasted Miguel Cabrera at the height of his powers and three future Cy Young winners among its talented core, you wouldn’t have been wrong to have low expectations.

Looking back, was it Kluber’s coming out party? It’s certainly a candidate. Again, this was a pitcher with very little personality, with nothing demonstratively amazing about his repertoire at that point (that insane slurve wasn’t fully fleshed out yet) and the pinpoint command wasn’t quite there. And yet, he just cut the Tigers down, striking out 10 in 6.1 innings, and bouncing back from a first inning home run from Cabrera to dominate the Tigers and eventually earn a win. You see it today, that he bounced back from that early homer to shut Detroit down, and it’s typical Kluberian stoicness, unshaken by anything, simply there to mow down opposing hitters. On that day though, we went from “here we go again” to “hey, that was a pretty good start”.

This wasn’t just a weird fluke, though. It was the start of a run that gave us a glimpse into what the next five years would be like. From July 7 to Sept. 22 Kluber started ten games, went 8-2, and posted a 2.66 ERA while striking out 55 in 61 innings. The next start after the Tigers he faced the Royals again, giving up just three hits in 7.2 innings. Before that start against Detroit, he was just another guy, easy to forget because he didn’t do anything special. Whether one game can get someone to click, or whether that switch was flipped that July morning is an argument you could go back and forth on forever. It was his first truly great moment though, and it defined a delightfully surprising 2013 campaign for Kluber. He ended the season with a 3.85 ERA, even after getting shelled in his final start on the 28th and looked like a good piece to fill out a rotation that would need a bit of work after the season. Nobody knew what was coming next, but at least there was a glimpse of hope for the future.

May 1, 2014: That loud clicking sound

The 2014 campaign didn’t start off great for Kluber. After a strong second half in 2013 he’d solidified a spot in the rotation, and Cleveland needed him to eat innings with the loss of Jiménez and Kazmir to free agency. With Masterson headlining, at the very least Kluber, McAllister, and some young guys including Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, T.J. House, and maybe even Carlos Carrasco looked to eat innings and keep a growing young team in games.

Four starts in though, Kluber’s ERA had ballooned to 5.40, his K/BB ratio was a depressing 19/6, and he looked like little more than rotation filler. If anything, McAllister looked like the breakout candidate, packing a 2.28 ERA in the early goings, while Bauer was making good on the Shin-Soo Choo deal from a year prior with his 1.50 ERA and striking out 32% of hitters. Kluber was an afterthought.

Then, that afternoon, sometime just after noon, there was a loud, echoing CLICK that burst from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and Kluber took his first great step to superstardom. Facing the eventual AL-champion Royals (there’s a theme here with breakout games, division champions, and Corey Kluber) Kluber was utterly untouchable, and the Royals were utterly unprepared for what ended up happening. A four-hit complete game with 11 strikeouts dropped his ERA to 3.90 as the Royals scraped across a lone unearned run and Kluber earned the win.

From that day to the end of the season, Kluber started 30 games and pitched 212.1 innings with a 2.12 ERA, striking out 250 batters and allowing just 224 baserunners. Ultimately, this led to an 8.1 bWAR season, the best mark by a Cleveland hitter since 1974, and also by that metric Kluber’s best season. And, yes, he won the Cy Young. He was certainly wonderful that April afternoon (and tried to throw us off the scent in his next start, 4.2 innings of eight hit, four run ball against the Angels) and it was an amazing season. Nobody expected him to not just get good, but immediately become the best pitcher in baseball, but he did that anyway. It was a hell of a how-do-you-do.

May 13, 2015: The Avatar game

As if by chance, the night the Indians were opening up the Bob Feller exhibit at Progressive Field also was Corey Kluber’s eighth start of the season. It only seemed right — the greatest Tribe pitcher in history honored in his team’s ballpark, with the current Best Pitcher in The World taking the hill for Cleveland. The thread of the Tribe’s great pitching had its first shining light with Feller, so the universe — and maybe some fancy schedule planning by the front office and managerial staff — set the stage for a bit of poetry that night.

Not that Kluber was defending his title very well. Seven starts in, Kluber’s ERA was 5.04, opposing hitters were posting a not great (for Kluber) .757 OPS against him, and everything seemed wrong. A year after that beautiful run from May to the end of the season, it was beginning to feel like a fluke. After all, we’ve seen pitchers before and since emerge from nowhere and then descend back to mediocrity. Ubaldo Jiménez went 10-1 in the first half in 2010 with the Rockies with a 2.20 ERA, Rick Porcello won a Cy Young in 2016 with the Red Sox, and Fausto Carmona had that insane 7.2 WAR season in 2007. It wouldn’t be overly surprising if the 2014 run were a fluke, more just disappointing.

Then that thing that became Typical Kluber happened. The calendar flipped to May, he got in a groove, and some hapless team found themselves at the wrong end of an absolute gem. This time it was a night with Feller’s widow in the stands, against 23-10 Cardinals. Of all the unfortunate teams for Kluber to suddenly detonate on, an eventual 100-win squad is quite the choice. Detonate he did though, channeling the spirit of his pitching forebear en route to an 18-strikeout, one-hit performance over eight innings. As Kluber himself put it to Zach Meisel after the game, “Whether it’s ironic or some other adjective to describe it, there’s definitely some symbolism or symmetry there.”

Irony, the spirit of Feller lifting Kluber to heights he’d never seen before or would again, who knows. It was a truly dazzling moment on a very special evening.

With a 98 Game Score, it’s also the greatest outing of eight innings or fewer in Cleveland history, and is tied for the fifth best pitching performance in team history overall. His 18 strikeouts also beat Feller for most by an Indian in one game. It utterly reversed course of his season and eliminated any worries of a tough start. Fans had hoped that the year before wasn’t some kind of fever dream, that they really were blessed with this amazing talent leading what was quickly becoming the best rotation in the league, this was just that stamp of assurance that all was well, and the ace wasn’t going anywhere.

October 2016: The hero that wasn’t

A moment isn’t always a flashbulb, a single game even. Sometimes it’s when a player gets the opportunity to rise to an impossibly difficult challenge and match it. This is where Kluber found himself in October 2016. The Robin to his Batman, Carlos Carrasco, was out with a broken arm. Danny Salazar was likewise on the shelf once again. The team had a wonderful run to the playoffs and earned the first division crown since 2007, but all of it might be for naught because the power of the team we’ve all come to know, that rotation, was broken. Just Kluber, a still growing Bauer, and Josh Tomlin were all that stood against the cream of the crop in the American league. Despite the team winning 94 games and going in as the two-seed in the AL, the late season injuries were just assumed to be the nail in the coffin for the Tribe.

Kluber, once again, seemingly didn’t get the message. He started three games against the best offense in the AL in the Boston Red Sox and the fourth best in the Toronto Blue Jays, pitching 18.1 innings and allowing two runs. That’s good for a 0.98 ERA, and he dropped that further as he allowed a sole run in Game 1 and 4 of the World Series combined to the best offense in baseball that year, the Cubs. All told, Kluber went into Game 7 allowing three runs to a trio of teams that brutalized pitching all season, throwing 30.1 innings, which worked to a 0.89 ERA. He’d struck out 35, allowed just 22 hits and kept those offenses to a combined .539 OPS. It was masterful.

Unfortunately, Kluber wouldn’t end up with a man of legend like Madison Bumgarner or other great postseason pitchers in the annals of baseball history. The key in the postseason is to win that last game, and to be fair he went out and competed his ass off in Game 7. The Indians had nobody else. Josh Tomlin was who he was, Bauer wasn’t who he’d become yet, and the bullpen was as taxed as Kluber was. He tried. He really did. He ground his way into the fifth inning with basically nothing in the tank, allowing three runs and not fooling anyone before Javier Báez chased him with a leadoff home run. The rest is as we remember it. He walked off, the Indians fought back valiantly, but weather, fate, and a little too much spin on a foul ball meant they ended up on the wrong side of history and as a depressing answer to a bar trivia question.

If he’d come back the next year and done it again, maybe things would be different. But Kluber’s career playoff numbers after that are not great and make his overall work seem pedestrian now, having been battered in both 2017 and ‘18. You look at that 3.97 ERA over nine career starts, and you have a hard time remembering that, for a month in 2016, he was going to be the savior of Cleveland’s championship hopes. Things don’t work out the way you want most times, and ultimately, this is an indelible mark on Kluber’s career. Whether or not you blame him, fate, or whatever, it’s just the way it is.

June 1, 2017: It happened again.

A month and change into the 2017 season, Tribe fans weren’t feeling all that bad about Kluber, despite the 5.06 ERA after his start on May 1. This is what he did, right? Muddle through April, turn it on in May, and lead the rotation to another sterling season. What we weren’t used to was him getting hurt, and missing games. Kluber had made at least 32 starts each of the previous three years, and 29 the year prior when he was a newcomer to the rotation. So, when you suddenly hear he’s headed to the injured list with a lower back strain, there’s obviously worry. Sure, he’d literally put the team on his back the previous October, maybe he was a bit worn down. A step back of a year was acceptable, especially with everyone healthy, Mike Clevinger breaking out, and the addition of Edwin Encarnación and return of Michael Brantley. The team could handle without Kluber at his absolute peak.

Still, a stint on the injured list is a bit worrying for a guy who’d worked so hard, pitched so much over the last couple years, and been so durable. After all, you’re a workhorse in baseball right up until you aren’t, and injury prone pitcher are nothing but frustrating. Kluber would find himself on the shelf for a whole month, or near enough, and not make his return until June 1. The Indians were in first place, but just by a hair, and just three games over .500 at 27-24. For as good as the team was supposed to be, it felt like underachieving. Nineteen thousand fans were at Progressive to see Kluber’s return against the Oakland A’s, and, well, it happened again.

Six innings, ten strikeouts, two hits and a walk. That’s what the A’s did that day at the plate against Kluber, as the Cleveland faithful saw the return of their ace. From that day on, everything fell into place. Kluber went on a rampage, averaged about 7.1 innings per start and posted a 1.62 ERA over 166.1 innings while logging a 224/23 K/BB ratio. Opposing offenses posted a .495 OPS against him, and he won his second Cy Young. It was every kind of incredible, the absolute peak of his career. He threw four complete games, three shutouts, and eleven games with one run or less allowed. There were only three games that saw his ERA go up at all from June 1 on, because he allowed three runs in each of those starts. The team followed suit going 75-36, a .675 winning percentage, and a run that included that marvelous 22-game win streak. It was the best Indians regular season we’ve seen since the ‘90s and easily top five since the ‘50s.

Kluber’s ability to have these days where it just clicked, and to do it twice en route to a Cy Young each time, was incredible. Pitchers shouldn’t have four or five months long hot streaks, but he just did, several times. After 2017 it was getting hard to talk about him in Cleveland baseball history among anyone except Feller and Sam McDowell. Stretches of utter dominance like this, without a hiccup all summer, seemed impossible until he kept doing it.

May 1, 2019: The end

There’s one more game, one last time that has to be mentioned. It’s the last time we ever saw Corey Kluber pitch for the Cleveland Indians. That it happened in early May, just when he was supposed to start turning it on and really rolling to another strong season, makes it all the worse. Kluber faced the Marlins that day, in a cavernously empty Marlins Stadium, again packing a swollen ERA at 5.81. The most troubling, though, his velocity was barely above 90, and he’d already walked 15 batters. This was a guy who had walked 70 batters in 62 games over 2016 and ‘17 combined, so this was especially worrisome. The fastball wasn’t good enough for him to throw over the plate, the cutter wasn’t sharp, and he couldn’t get people to chase the breaker. But surely, surely it was just early, and he needed to knock the kinks out. That was tradition after all.

In the fifth inning against a really bad Miami squad, Kluber hadn’t done anything to calm people’s worries, having surrendered eight hits and three runs, and hit a batter to open the frame. It was May 1, why wasn’t he good now? A double play cleared the bases for Kluber to face right fielder Brian Anderson, who to that point in the season was hitting .252/.336/.342, though he’d singled earlier in the game. I guess he was seeing the ball well, and anyway Kluber wasn’t fooling anyone.

It was a line drive, right at Kluber. It hit him right in the right forearm. It was weird how the ball came out of Kluber’s hand, suddenly just kind of flashed back at him, and then fell dead to the earth. All that force transferred right into the Tribe ace’s pitching arm in a fraction of a second. In that heartbeat, time shifted, the bone fractured, and he walked off the field with the trainer and Terry Francona at his side. It was weird. He didn’t react to it really, kind of like most people would stubbing their toe. Who’d have known that it would be the last time we’d see him wear a Cleveland uniform? A pitcher rarely leaves a game when he wants to, whether because they think they can do more or because they physically can’t do it. That slow walk off the mound though, head down, with the inning still going, it’s never good, least of all when it’s with the trainer next to you. After such a rough start to the year, this was absolutely the worst. And it was the last time he’d do it for Cleveland.

It was a brilliant career, honestly one of the three or four best pitching tenures in Cleveland history. From 2013-2018 when he was a mainstay in the rotation, he averaged 5.5 WAR per year, won awards and did all he could for the Indians. He’s gone now to Texas, again with a lost season to injury, and you wonder what’s next for Kluber. To see him as this pale shadow of what he once was, in a strange uniform no less, is disappointing after his meteoric rise from nowhere to the absolute top of the game. With how the game is played, with how the Indians can’t keep great players for more than six or seven years anymore, there’s a great chance he’ll be on the all-time WAR list for a while. To get there in under a decade means you are a supreme talent. That describes Kluber perfectly.

The Indians and their fans were lucky to have him.