Kluber gets the call for Game 1 on Friday
CLEVELAND — Corey Kluber is back at the top of the Indians’ make-it-up-as-they-go rotation.
Cleveland will start its ace in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the few certainties Indians manager Terry Francona has as his team plays for a spot in the World Series.
Trevor Bauer, who started the opener of the Division Series against Boston, will pitch Game 2 and Josh Tomlin will take the mound for Game 3 in Toronto on Sunday. After that, Francona has “penciled in” Mike Clevinger for Game 4, but that plan could change depending on what happens in the first three games.
The uncertainty is nothing new to Francona, who has been forced to juggle his rotation for weeks after losing starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injuries.
Francona’s decision to send out Kluber first was expected after the right-hander showed no signs of a late-season quadriceps injury and pitched seven shutout innings in Game 2 against the Red Sox. Kluber limited baseball’s highest-scoring team to three hits and ended any concerns about him not being himself in his first postseason.
The Indians will need Kluber and the rest of their staff to be on when they face the wild-card Blue Jays, who battered Texas in their ALDS by hitting eight homers and scoring 22 runs.
“They’re good,” said Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. “They’re excellent. Their whole roster is pretty good, as far as swinging the bat. We’ve got to make pitches from Pitch 1. They’re a little bit different makeup than Boston. They’re not going to sit around and take a first-pitch strike. You can’t just groove a first pitch to them. You’ve got to throw quality strikes right out the get-go, and then make sure you stay ahead. That’s going to be the challenge, making sure you throw quality strikes early and see what happens after that.”
Kluber, who will face Toronto right-hander Marco Estrada in the opener, went 18-9 during the regular season, bouncing back from a 16-loss season in 2015. He was 0-1 with a 6.30 ERA in two starts against the Blue Jays.
While Francona has had to mix and match with his starters, he won’t have Salazar on the ALCS roster.
The Indians sent the right-hander to Arizona to build up stamina in hopes that he might be able to return for this series after being sidelined since early September with forearm tightness. But Francona said the 11-game winner is not ready, and the Indians don’t want to rush him back.
“He’s doing pretty good,” Francona said. “He’s not back yet where he’s throwing all his pitches or letting it go 100 percent. I think if we ask him to do that, he might be reaching right now. We’ve been pretty vocal about the first priority is getting him back healthy. I think this proves it. We wouldn’t do that to somebody.”
The loss of Salazar was compounded when Carrasco broke his right hand when he was hit by a line drive on Sept 17. Francona has had to be creative with his bullpen, using eight relievers to complete the game in which Carrasco got hurt.
“There’s not much our bullpen hasn’t experienced throughout the course of the year,” team president Chris Antonetti said. “We’ve had all different types of games, from the extra-inning game in Toronto to the game when Carlos left after two pitches. So, there’s not too much our guys haven’t handled and I think they’re prepared and ready to go pitch when it’s their turn, whenever Tito calls upon them.”
Francona used his bullpen masterfully against the Red Sox, bringing in left-hander Andrew Miller earlier and relying on late-inning stalwarts Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen.
The manager will likely take a similar approach into the series with Toronto.
At this point, he doesn’t have much choice.