CLEVELAND — In May 2012, the Big Ten baseball tournament at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio, forced the Class AAA Columbus Clippers to move Corey Kluber's regular bullpen session to the indoor mound below the stands of their home stadium. And there, hidden from the daylight, on another mundane day in another unspectacular season for another unmemorable right-handed minor-league pitcher, Kluber, then 26, heard these fateful words from his pitching coach:
"We want you to try throwing a two-seamer."
Ruben Niebla, the pitching coach, showed Kluber his preferred two-seam fastball grip, and, Niebla recalled this week, Kluber's first try with the new pitch swept through the strike zone. Do it again, Niebla told Kluber. "And he did it again." Now try throwing it to the catcher's glove-side, Niebla told him. "And he dotted it on the corner."
Two days later In Syracuse, when Kluber made his next start, the new pitch was part of his repertoire. By the end of Kluber's 6⅔ -inning performance in a 7-1 win, Niebla sidled up to Clippers Manager Mike Sarbaugh and said, "We might have something here. I think Corey is really figuring it out."
By August 2012, the Cleveland Indians had called Kluber — with his career minor-league record of 45-50 and ERA of 4.40 — up to the big leagues.
By midseason of 2013, he was an established part of the Indians' rotation.
By the end of 2014, he was the American League Cy Young Award winner.
By the end of 2016, he was a folk hero in Cleveland, after starting on short rest three times during the Indians' memorable run to the World Series.
And by the time he takes the mound for his next start Sunday, Kluber, 31, will have been a central figure in the most dominant stretch of baseball any team has compiled in more than 100 years — with the Indians entering the weekend having won a major-league record 22 straight games. (The 1916 New York Giants won 26 straight, recognized in some corners as the official record, but the Giants' streak included a tie.)
Though he was also the last Indians pitcher to suffer a loss before the launch of the streak — a 6-1 defeat to Boston on Aug. 23 — he has been virtually untouchable during its course, going 4-0 with a 1.41 ERA and 35 strikeouts against two walks in 32 innings, while limiting opposing hitters to a .170/.184/.304 slash line. Since coming off the disabled list June 1, he has gone 13-4 with a 1.77 ERA and may have caught, if not surpassed, Boston's Chris Sale in the AL Cy Young race.
"He's one of the best in the game," Detroit Manager Brad Ausmus said Tuesday night, after Kluber dominated the Tigers in a shutout that included eight strikeouts and no walks. "He's got four pitches, and they all look the same coming out of his hand. He's very methodical. He's got good command. He doesn't walk many people, and he's just got outstanding stuff."
That win over the Tigers pushed the Indians' winning streak to 20, tying the 2002 Oakland A's for the AL record. But when the final out was in the first baseman's glove, and his joyous teammates gathered in small groups to celebrate, the man known as "Klubot" — for his stoic, robotic demeanor — merely took a few steps toward his catcher, to shake his hand, and never once cracked the slightest smile.
Kluber's work ethic and between-starts preparation are legendary around the Indians, to the point where the team has assigned a group of its youngest prospects to follow him around for a few days to do nothing but observe him. Those traits are ones he has possessed as far back as anyone can remember.
"He's not a very loud guy," Indians Manager Terry Francona said. "But his leading by example is impeccable.
Indians closer Cody Allen, who was Kluber's teammate at Class AAA Columbus during that fateful 2012 season, said while Kluber has transformed himself as a pitcher, he is exactly the same person as the one who struggled as a middling prospect.
"The only difference between then and now," Allen said, "is he figured a couple things out. The way he prepares and the he carries himself is the exact same as it was five years ago. He just identified what worked for him as a pitcher, and he worked really hard at perfecting his craft."
It's impossible to overstate how ordinary Kluber was as a pitching prospect for most of his minor-league career. He was undrafted out of Coppell (Tex.) High School and even after a dazzling junior season at Stetson University, lasted until the fourth round in 2007, when the San Diego Padres took him with the 134th overall pick. Baseball America tabbed him as the Padres' 29th-best prospect that same year, but by the next year, he had fallen out of the top 30, never to appear again.
But one thing Kluber always could do was miss bats, and his high strikeout rates intrigued the Indians, who acquired him in July 2010 in a three-way deadline trade that revolved around veteran pitcher Jake Westbrook going from the Indians to the St. Louis Cardinals. One news report in San Diego at the time of the trade described Kluber's ceiling as a "fringe fifth starter."
"We always thought he was going to be a good pitcher at the major league level," Manny Acta, the Indians' manager from 2010-12 and now the third base coach for the Seattle Mariners, said in a telephone interview. "When you lead the [Class AA] Texas League in strikeouts [as Kluber did in 2010], you have a chance to pitch in the big leagues. I'm not going to sit here and tell you we thought he'd become this Cy Young-caliber ace, but he always had good stuff and the ability to miss bats. And he always had that quiet assassin air about him. You never knew if he was nervous or not."
Kluber's downfall in his mid-20s was his lack of command, underscored by a walk rate that approached four per nine innings in both Class AA and AAA. No matter how hard you throw a four-seamed fastball — and Kluber's touched the mid-90s — it won't get you to the big leagues if you don't know where it's going.
"There was some frustration there," Kluber said Thursday at his locker at Progressive Field, his face betraying no emotion as he recalled the lowest points of his career. "Obviously, it's frustrating when you want to be good at something and you work hard to be good at something, and you don't see the results."
His turnaround, Kluber acknowledged, began with that May 2012 bullpen session in Columbus, where, at Niebla's urging, he tried out the two-seamer — a pitch he had played around with in the past, but only in the bullpen and never in a game, and with a slightly different grip. In Kluber's recollection, it took most of the afternoon to hone the pitch, but the effect was something close to an epiphany.
"It was almost a desperation thing. We had to try something different," he said. "Up to that point I'd struggled with commanding my fastball. With the different grip, aside from having more action on it, it helped me to command it better to both sides of the plate. And obviously, that's one of the keys to anyone's success."
"It really did start taking shape there," Niebla said. "That year he wound up in the Indians' rotation. It was very gratifying because we knew how hard he had worked and how much he wanted it."
By now, Kluber's two-seamer is a modern marvel, capable of landing on any corner of the plate with a wicked lateral movement that can induce swings and misses or freeze a hitter. And while he is throwing it this season less frequently than ever — in favor of a wipeout breaking pitch that has developed into one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball — its influence is still spreading across the Indians' clubhouse.
Trevor Bauer, Kluber's Cleveland rotation-mate, is having a breakout season, with the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career, and it is partly the result of his studying video of Kluber's two-seamer and trying to mimic its action.
The Indians' pitching staff, in fact, has been historically good this year. It leads all of baseball with a 3.35 ERA (entering Friday), and its strikeout rate of 10.01 per nine innings would be an all-time record — as if every pitcher on their staff was Pedro Martinez (career rate of 10.04 strikeouts per nine innings).
"It's fun," Kluber said. "We're trying to build off the momentum we have going. We got off to a rough start [this season]. But we've been able to work our way into a groove and maintain it."
"Fun" is not a word often associated with Kluber, whose stoic face gives the appearance of someone who doesn't know what the word means. And hitters certainly would never use it in regards to facing him.
But the man known as Klubot has a beating heart after all, and after pulling himself up from the depths of minor-league purgatory to the pinnacle of his profession, lifting his team in the process to unprecedented heights, he knows whereof he speaks. If Corey Kluber says this is fun, it must surely be so.
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