Cleveland — Here’s the dilemma the Tigers hitters were presented with on yet another chilly night (33 degrees at first pitch Monday night):
Indians right-hander Corey Kluber, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, was devastatingly sharp. He had all three pitches clicking and his command was near-perfect.
On top of that, home plate umpire Jeff Nelson’s strike zone was generous. Balls on the upper, lower and outer boundaries of the zone were being called strikes. It’s a hitter’s nightmare and the result was eight innings of two-hit shutout ball and 13 strikeouts by Kluber in the Indians’ 2-0 win.
“I’m not going to comment on the strike zone,” said Tigers catcher James McCann, who struck out three times, twice looking. “But Kluber had his stuff today. He threw all three pitches to spots he wanted at any time. And he got every call in his favor.
“He’s a great pitcher and sometimes you’ve got to tip your cap. He had our number tonight.”
The loss snapped the Tigers’ three-game win streak.
Ten of Kluber’s 13 strikeouts came in the first five innings. Since last June 1, he has had 15 games of 10 or more strikeouts, more than any pitcher in baseball over that span.
Eight of his strikeouts Monday were on called third strikes. He got 15 called strikes on his slider alone (according to Baseball Savant). The Tigers hitters complained bitterly when punched out, but Nelson’s strike zone, good or bad, was consistent. He never altered it and the Tigers’ hitters never adjusted.
“What you have to do is make your strike zone bigger,” McCann said, when asked what adjustments the Tigers could’ve made. “And that plays right into Kluber’s game. Because he can throw the ball exactly where he wants to and if you start swinging at pitches off the plate, you have no chance.”
Two hits, that was the extent of the Tigers’ damage against Kluber — a one-out single by Victor Martinez in the second inning and a two-out single by Nick Castellanos in the fourth. Neither reached second base; nor did Leonys Martin who walked with one out in the sixth.
It was an overpowering performance. He threw 102 pitches and got 29 called strikes. The average exit velocity (according to Baseball Savant) on balls put in play was 75.9 mph. Miguel Cabrera produced the hardest hit ball against him — a 108.5-mph line out to shortstop.
“He was really good and he was really close, right on the corners and we couldn’t get to it,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s great. He’s always had great stuff. But our guy did pretty darn good, too.”
For 4⅔ innings, Tigers starter Francisco Liriano matched Kluber pitch for pitch. The Indians didn’t get their first hit until Yan Gomes slapped a single with two outs in the fifth.
Bradley Zimmer followed with a 417-foot home run to right-center field. On a 1-1 count, Liriano threw an off-speed pitch, a slider, and it left Zimmer’s bat at 107 mph.
“Just one mistake, one bad pitch and it changed the whole game,” said Liriano, who allowed just three hits in six innings.
Said McCann: “He gave us a chance to win. He pitched his butt off. And the guys who came after him pitched their butts off, too. Gave up two runs; you can’t really ask for much more.”
Speaking of pitching their butts off, Buck Farmer replaced Liriano but lasted only three batters. He gave up a double to Rajai Davis and got a groundout, but he came up hobbling after releasing a pitch to Zimmer.
“His butt muscle tightened up,” Gardenhire said. “He should be fine. It was a spasm.”
Farmer left the game after walking Zimmer. Drew VerHagen was summoned and worked out of the jam.
With runners at first and second, the Indians attempted a double steal. McCann threw to second base and initially Zimmer was called safe. The Tigers challenged and the call was reversed.
VerHagen, who fanned three in 1⅔ innings, struck out Erik Gonzalez to end the inning.
Good to keep the deficit at two, but in the end it was irrelevant. Because after being dominated by Kluber for eight innings, they got to face All-Star left-hander Andrew Miller in the ninth. No contest.
“It was a good effort by us,” Gardenhire said. “We faced a really hot pitcher. We’ve seen it before. When he’s spot on like that, it makes it really tough.”