The Cleveland Indians hand the ball to their ace on Saturday night at Wrigley Field with a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven World Series.
Devout creature of habit Corey Kluber, an 18-game winner this season, starts Game 4 with only three days off for the second time this postseason. A win would push the Chicago Cubs to the brink of elimination.
“I think they’re obviously going to make adjustments based on last game,” Kluber said. “I’m going to make adjustments based on last game. And it’s just going to be that cat-and-mouse game.”
A 1-0 victory on Friday night gave Cleveland a 2-1 series lead. It was the fourth time in 13 games this postseason the Cubs were shut out.
“To be the best this time of year, you’ve got to beat the best,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Kluber had the Cubs’ lineup kowtowing in Game 1, leaving after 88 pitches in the top of the seventh inning with a shutout. Kluber had much more in the tank, but the Indians went into the series planning on getting three starts from their ace: Games 1, 4 and 7. Kluber won Tuesday at Progressive Field for his 21st victory of the season and third win in the playoffs, where his ERA is 0.74.
“Kluber has made himself, through hard work, one of the elite pitchers in the game,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Once he got here he didn’t take his foot off the gas. I mean, this kid’s routines are impeccable. He works hard. Every time he picks up a ball, there is intent. There’s a reason its October 28 and his gas tank, the needle’s full.”
Kluber’s between-starts-routine and machine-like focus earned him the nicknamed Klubot in Cleveland. The Cubs are planning to reprogram their approach to Kluber in Game 4, a must considering the first three hitters in their lineup — Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — are a combined 1 for 22 against the right-hander. The rest of the lineup also has weak results in the matchup.
“Kluber was outstanding in Game 1,” Maddon said. Then again, a second look at Los Angeles Dodgers ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw was a much different story than the first in the National League Championship Series.
And Maddon is not convinced bringing a pitching back on short rest is an advantage.
“To throw a guy out there on less days rest, of course they can do well,” Maddon said. “But that’s something that was done more prominently back with Jim Lonborg or Bob Gibson or the guys back in the day that would run them out there more readily. It’s just not part of the baseball culture these days. However, I do like having the solid fourth guy. You would think it would be more difficult for guys coming back on short rest, but you have to play the game to find out.”
Should Kluber find trouble Saturday, the Indians can turn to their potent bullpen. Andrew Miller picked up the win Friday and like closer Cody Allen, threw less than 20 pitches in 1 1/3 innings of work in Game 3. Both could be available for multiple innings in Game 4.
While Kluber is a relatively new look for most Cubs who’ll dig in Saturday, Cubs veteran righty John Lackey has plenty of history, and that’s just the way he likes it.
Lackey makes his 23rd career postseason start Saturday night, and first since making two in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox. He also started two games and appeared in a third with the Angels in 2002.
“It’s kind of been a crazy schedule for me, for sure. I feel like I’m pitching every two weeks kind of deal,” said Lackey, who allowed 10 earned runs in 26 1/3 career innings in the Fall Classic. “I like scouting reports. I like having a little bit of history. I’m a guy that studies film, studies reports, studies past history. So I think some of that information can help.
“But then again, you talk to hitters, most of the time they feel like a pitcher has an advantage over them the first time they see them. They get better as they see most guys. So it can work both ways. You’ve still got to execute pitches.”
A teammate of Lackey’s for the past two seasons — first in St. Louis with the Cardinals and this season with the Cubs — right fielder Jason Heyward, who signed an eight-year, $184 million contract with a $20 million signing bonus on Dec. 11, sat for the fourth consecutive postseason game Friday night.
Heyward, a .157 career hitter in the playoffs, has two hits in 30 at-bats in these playoffs and team president Theo Epstein said Friday that any correction for Heyward would be offseason maintenance. But Maddon did not rule out starting him against Kluber.
“I’m trying to do this one moment at a time,” Maddon said. “I do like Jason in the latter part of the game.”
Heyward is one of the best outfield defenders in baseball.
And Maddon has another wild card to play late in games, pinch-hitter Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs could use him in the heat of the game given Schwarber’s solid contact against him in Game 1. Schwarber, still not 100 percent from knee surgery, was not cleared to play in the field. He popped out as a pinch-hitter on Friday night.
While Schwarber tattooed his first hit of the season Tuesday, a double to the gap in right, contact was suppressed by the Indians in the opener. The Cubs struck out 15 times.
Four days later, Kluber hasn’t lost his edge.
“It’s doing the same stuff, just one less day,” Kluber said.