The Indians’ happy hayride to the postseason has taken a sudden, unexpected turn.
Oh, they’ll still get there all right. It’s an empty four-lane highway from here.
At last glance, the four punching bags that pass for the rest of the Central Division are a combined 90 games under .500. The Indians have won more games at home than last-place Kansas City has won total.
The Indians have a run differential of plus-83, while the Gruesome Foursome of the division is a combined minus-405. The Indians have scored 159 more runs than the Royals.
So for the Indians, getting to the postseason isn’t the problem.
Staying there is.
Remember last year? Up 2-0 over the Yankees in the best-of-five Division Series, but then, faster than the Indians could say, “Did you hear about our 22-game winning streak?” the Yankees had tossed them into the dumpster and moved on.
The Indians went 102-60 in the regular season and 2-3 in the postseason.
This year, because of the meager-to-nonexistent competition in their division, the Indians have the luxury of using the second half of the season to get their house in order, in preparation for their fourth trip to the postseason in the six years since Terry Francona jumped behind the wheel.
Since Francona took over in 2013, the Indians’ record in the second half is 218-144 (.602). That’s the most wins and highest winning percentage of any team in the majors.
However, the Indians in that stretch have won the same number of World Series rings as the Orioles, so there’s that.
Last year the 102-win, 22-game-winning-streak Indians were the favorites to win the World Series, but were quickly flushed by the Yankees.
In 2016, they weren’t the favorites to win the World Series. They still got there — but didn’t win it.
This year — with only the 11th-best record in the majors — they are nobody’s favorites to win anything, other than the sorry Central Division. They’ll go into the postseason as the nominal fourth or fifth seed in the American League, squinting to even see the taillights of the powerhouse Red Sox, Astros and Yankees.
And now, Corey Kluber has a sore knee.
Or at least he did. Recently. Very recently. So recently that he was given an injection in the knee, one that Francona tried to romantically frame as a “gel shot.”
More specifically, it was an injection of a lubricant designed to make Kluber’s aching knee not need an injection of a lubricant.
The time was right. Kluber got the shot before the All-Star break, didn’t pitch in the All-Star game, or until the Indians’ fourth game coming out of the break, in order to give his knee maximum recovery time.
Then against the Pirates on Monday night, his first start in 10 days, Kluber lasted just four innings. He faced 22 batters. Seven of them scored. Nine of them got hits. One of them hit a double. One of them hit a triple. One of them hit a home run. Only two of them struck out.
Even allowing for the Indians’ horrific defense, which gave the Pirates five outs in a four-run, 31-pitch second inning, leading to three unearned runs and Kluber having to throw about 15 pitches that shouldn’t have been necessary, it was a sobering outing by the two-time Cy Young Award winner.
He gave up lots of hard contact, had fastball command issues and wasn’t consistently getting the bite, nor the precise location, on his breaking ball.
Frankly, he looked a lot like he did in Game 2 of the Division Series last year against the Yankees, when he gave up six runs on seven hits, including two home runs, in 2 2/3 innings.
He looked a lot like did in Game 5 of the Division Series last year, when he gave up three runs, including two homers to Didi Gregorius, and never got out of the fourth inning.
He looked a lot like he did in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, when he gave up four runs in four innings, including home runs on the first and last pitches he threw — to Dexter Fowler, leading off the game, and Javy Baez, leading off the fifth inning.
In all those games, though he and the Indians refused to ever acknowledge it, Kluber was either hurt or out of gas. Perhaps both.
How do we know this? Because Kluber is so great that when he has a bad game he still wins most of the time. The above clunkers were all seemingly due to engine trouble.
Thus, the Indians’ priority for the rest of this regular season should be as clear as it is Klubercentric: Get him healthy, keep him fresh and get him on a roll.
With Kluber being Kluber, the Indians will gladly take their chances in October.
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