Cleveland Indians look for strong start to ALDS behind ace pitcher Corey Kluber

Cleveland Indians look for strong start to ALDS behind ace pitcher Corey Kluber

CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Indians are calling upon their ace.

The Indians are looking for a strong start to the 2018 American League Division Series against the reigning World Series Champion Houston Astros, and they are turning to 20-game winner Corey Kluber for today’s Game 1 matchup at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

“We love it,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of starting Kluber in Game 1.

“I’m sure they feel the same way with (Justin) Verlander. I think, as an organization or a team, you do what you think puts you in the best position. If that’s to have an opener, okay, but I know how we feel with Kluber pitching, and it’s good, and he’s earned that. Same with Verlander.”

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Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber (28) fires to home plate in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field.

David Richard

In his 33 starts this season, Kluber (20-7) registered 222 strikeouts against 34 walks, 179 hits and 69 earned runs allowed over 215.0 innings of work while anchoring a pitching staff that led the way to the Indians’ third consecutive AL Central Division Championship.

Opposing batters hit just .223 against Kluber this season.

“Regardless of who you’re playing, you prepare for those nine hitters,” Kluber said. “The way I look at it, you don’t prepare any less for a guy hitting eighth or ninth than a guy hitting first or second because there’s no telling what the situation is going to be when any of those guys come up to the plate.

“You don’t want to be unprepared just because a guy is at the bottom of the lineup and you’re not ready to face him in a big spot. At least for me, I prepare for each one of them, one through nine, as well as the guys that might pinch-hit just so that when it does come time to face them, you feel like you’re as prepared and ready as possible.”

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Cleveland Indians starter Corey Kluber (28) winds up to deliver a pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Kim Klement

The reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, Kluber won four games in three different months this season, starting with an 8-1 slate through April and May. Additionally, Kluber posted a 4-1 record over his six August starts.

An AL All-Star for the third consecutive season, Kluber posted an 8-2 record in 13 starts following the 2018 MLB All-Star Game. Over 81.1 innings pitched, Kluber struck out 90 batters and walked only 17 while cutting down on his home runs allowed.

Kluber allowed 19 home runs in 133.2 innings pitched before the Mid-Summer Classic, but in 50 less innings of work since mid-July, he surrendered only six round-trippers.

A dominant pitcher in the 2016 postseason, where the Indians were within a win of their first World Series Championship since 1948, Kluber struggled mightily against the New York Yankees in the 2017 ALDS. Kluber had a 12.79 ERA and opponents hit .345 against him over just 6.1 innings of work in two starts.

“Whether a game I pitch or a month I have or a year I have is good or bad, the way I look at it is I’m looking forward to the next one,” Kluber said. “Not really, like I said, not dwelling on previous outings or games. Whether they’re good or bad, I think it’s focusing on your next opponent and preparing yourself to face them.”

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How can anyone not be excited for the Yankees-Red Sox series?

How can anyone not be excited for the Yankees-Red Sox series?

There was this talking point for a long time among non-East Coast baseball fans that everyone was sick, sick, sick of the Yankees and the Red Sox meeting in the playoffs. “Oh, them again?” people moaned.

Even when they did not meet, there was this head-shaking dismissal of even the possibility of it, with disgruntled Midwesterners, Southerners and people from points west believing, at times, the fix was in and that MLB would do anything to give us big time Yankees-Red Sox matchups. That talking point lasted for years and years. Indeed, get some non-East Coast fans talking baseball today and you’ll find that it still exists to some extent. People roll their eyes at Yankees-Red Sox matchups and each October some still think the fix will be in, either literally or cosmically, to get them together.

Which is insane, because they have only met three times in the postseason. Four if you count the 1978 playoff game which gave us Bucky F***in Dent but which, technically speaking, was part of the regular season. Only three regularly scheduled playoff series, though:

  • In the 1999 ALCS, when Bernie Williams hit a walk-off homer to win the opener, Pedro Martinez and the Sox bats beat Roger Clemens for the Sox’ only win in the series, but the Yankees won handily and went on to sweep the Braves in the World Series;
  • In the 2003 ALCS when Aaron F***in’ Boone hit that 11th inning walkoff homer in Game 7; and
  • The 2004 ALCS which, you may have heard, involved the Red Sox coming back from a 3-0 deficit thanks to a Dave Roberts stolen base, a David Ortiz walkoff homer, a bloody sock — probably ketchup — and all manner of other drama on the way to the Curse of the Bambino being broken.

Yes, I will grant, there was enough history in those three series to fill up highlight reels for hours, but it’s still just three series. They were three series, though, that helped launch the already existing Yankees-Red Sox rivalry into something which dominated the baseball discourse, especially during national broadcasts, for years and years.

That’s really what’s at work when my fellow non-East Coasters complain: the ubiquitousness of Yankees-Red Sox chatter as opposed to the games themselves. The promotion of regular season matchups between the Yankees and Red Sox on ESPN and other national outlets as if they were bigger than just 1 of 162, even in April. The talk about their rivalry and the expectation — often made into a reality, I’ll grant — that each of them will dominate the offseason conversation as well as the in-season one. This bugs people a lot. It bugs some people so much that they may imagine, say, their ubiquity in the postseason in a way that does not at all conform with reality.

I think both sides in this — the non-East Coast fans who get sick of the Yankees and Red Sox and the networks and media types who overhype them — can break out of this mess, though, and they can do it by doing the exact same thing: focusing on the here and now, not the past.

The 2018 Yankees and Red Sox are, with a respectful nod to the Astros, the most talented teams in the game. A good deal of that talent is homegrown too, including Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino and many others. Despite the effort to make heroes and villains in baseball rivalries, most of these guys are pretty fun to watch and, as far as we know, pretty decent guys too. Each lineup is relentless. There are a host of electric arms. The crowds will be going crazy. Even if you’re not a Yankees or a Red Sox partisan, you have to admit that this is poised to be a fantastic series that can be enjoyed for its own sake without reference to their comically overanalyzed history.

For fans who may be groaning at a Yankees-Red Sox series, realize this is not, in fact, a common occurrence and that the baseball between these two clubs is fixing to be great. To TBS, which is broadcasting this series, I’d ask that you understand that everyone is really, really tired of seeing highlights from the early 2000s, references to Bucky Dent, the Bloody Sock and that Curse of the Bambino. There is so much to care about here without getting to that, so let’s stay away from excessive nostalgia, could we? I hope we can, even if I’m skeptical TBS will steer clear of that.

If all that fails — if the fans can’t get over their dislike of Boston and New York and if TBS can’t help itself from wallowing in nostalgia — well, it’s only a best-of-five series, so it’ll be over soon enough.

Is Theo Epstein's call for urgency in 2019 compatible with Joe Maddon's style?

Is Theo Epstein's call for urgency in 2019 compatible with Joe Maddon's style?

Theo from Wrigleyville did everything but hang up and listen for his answer when weighing in on the Cubs on Wednesday.

Channeling his inner sports-talk radio caller, Cubs President Theo Epstein all but declared that the team prematurely eliminated in October needed more fire and passion.

The Ivy League-educated Epstein said so more eloquently, but that was his gist, a striking contradiction from the time-honored baseball belief underscoring how long the 162-game season is. At the very least, Epstein’s comments marked a distinct inflection change from a respected voice of reason who suddenly sounded like so many fans and media members told to relax after tough losses.

“If you just show up, playing it cool, knowing you’re talented, knowing it’s a long season and trusting that the talent will manifest over the course of 162, sometimes you’ll end up one game short,’’ Epstein said. “We could’ve done more from Day 1 to 162 as far as complete sense of urgency every day, being completely on mission every day, showing up with that assertiveness and that edge every day.”

Meatball fans all over Chicago rejoiced, creating a chorus of I-told-you-sos. See, every game does matter. Since April, the most-asked question about the Cubs season that just crashed and burned was this: Is it time to panic about an inconsistent team losing winnable games? Now here was Epstein, the epitome of patience and perspective, saying the answer always was yes.

That subtle but significant shift in philosophy from Epstein empowers every Cubs fan to start worrying as early as they want in 2019, when he vowed things will be different. The Cubs organization just lost the right to complain about anybody panicking over a bad stretch of baseball. Expect the second-guessing that manager Joe Maddon likes to mock to intensify beginning with the March 28 opener against the Rangers. Must-win games in May? The idea might make Maddon and players scoff, but Epstein practically prepared everyone — including his manager, and perhaps especially him — for that inevitability.

“Sometimes divisions aren’t lost on that last day of the season when you only score one run and you don’t get in,’’ Epstein said. “They’re not lost in that last week and a half when the other team goes 8-0 and you go 4-3 and you needed to go 5-2. Sometimes they’re lost early in the season when you have an opportunity to push for that sweep, but you’ve already got two out of three and you’re just not quite there with that killer instinct.’’

Not even Epstein can cite any metrics that measure killer instinct, but he also knows better than anyone what the Cubs lack.

Immediately, you wonder how this new approach will go over with Maddon, because nothing about “showing up with that assertiveness and that edge every day” sounds compatible with letting the pleasure exceed the pressure. Have we seen the last of Maddon’s theme trips or art displays that certainly help lighten the mood but also perhaps contribute to softening the edge? Will Maddon stop saying how much he likes to “Meatloaf” a series, a reference to the rock musician’s song “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” because sometimes — against a weak opponent — winning two out of three isn’t good enough for Epstein? Can a manager who will turn 65 in February adapt his outlook to make games in April and May matter as much as the ones in September, the way Epstein declared the Cubs would?

Not that those answers ultimately matter. Epstein expressed no concerns over Maddon’s lame-duck status entering the final year of his contract, suggesting the manager will embrace the newfound urgency — or else.

In a game without a clock, the ticking just got louder on Maddon’s tenure. The former Lafayette College quarterback must adopt a football mentality that adheres to Epstein’s established criteria for 2019. Nothing about Maddon’s what-me-worry personality appears terribly urgent, yet now he finds himself forced into managing every series next season as if it might be his last, not necessarily a media exaggeration as much as an Epstein edict.

If Epstein believes complacency crept into the Cubs clubhouse — an idea ace pitcher Jon Lester introduced in the aftermath of Tuesday’s loss to the Rockies — then that reflects poorest on the manager. If Maddon received credit for creating a winning atmosphere on the Cubs since the day he arrived in 2015, then he also bears responsibility for letting intensity lapse to the point his team plays flat and his bosses notice.

Epstein made clear he believes the Cubs’ problems revolve around production more than talent. He portrayed the Cubs as a team falling short of its potential, despite winning 95 games again. Without naming names, one could surmise Epstein was alluding to the stagnant second-half growth of young players such as outfielders Ian Happ, Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber, catcher Willson Contreras and even shortstop Addison Russell, whose career had started going south even before Major League Baseball suspended him 40 games for violating its domestic-violence policy.

The day-to-day aspect of player development falls on the leaders in the dugout, not the front office. Everything about the dugout revolves around Maddon, who threatens to become a victim of the loosey-goosey, let-it-be culture he created. Something about that environment has led to an overall lapse in performance. Something about it interfered with the Cubs’ focus. Day in and day out, something intangible was missing that the Cubs need to rediscover before next season.

That’s not a knee-jerk reaction from a fed-up fan base. That’s the presidential response from a guy with three World Series rings, who just enabled the overreaction bound to follow every Cubs loss next season.

David Haugh is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune.

David Haugh: The only certainty for the Cubs is change, a necessity after they exit meekly from the playoffs »

5 things to know after Braves' flop in Game 1 of NLDS

5 things to know after Braves' flop in Game 1 of NLDS

Atlanta’s first playoff game since 2013 was a Hollywood flop. 

The Braves were blanked, 6-0, in Los Angeles by the defending NL champions. The Dodgers were actually outhit 6-5 by Atlanta, but the Braves only got singles. L.A. launched three homers, two off starter Atlanta starter Mike Foltynewicz. 

Folty foiled 

Mike Foltynewicz struck out five, but also walked three and gave up four runs off two homers. It was the eighth time this year he’s allowed more than three runs in a start. His 2.0 innings were his shortest stint this season. Twice he lasted 4-2/3 innings. 

The Braves used five pitchers in relief of Foltynewicz. Three of those pitchers — Sean Newcomb, Chad Sobotka and Max Fried — were in the minors last season. Jonny Venters and Brad Brach joined the Braves via trades in July. 

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Braves pitchers combined for eight walks. That is the most allowed by Atlanta in a nine-inning NLDS game since their 10-5 loss to the Houston Astros in Game 1 in 2005. 

Odds are … 

History shows that Game 1 winners in best-of-five series have taken the series nearly 72 percent of the time. Odds increase just slightly (72.3 percent) favoring home-team winners of Game 1. 

Righthander Anibal Sanchez will get the start for the Braves Friday in Game 2 of NLDS

Game 2 matchup 

The Braves send veteran Anibal Sanchez, 34, to mound for Game 2. Sanchez produced a 2.83 ERA and struck out 135 hitters over 136-2/3 innings in his first season with the Braves. The Dodgers will have ace Clayton Kershaw — who owns a 4.35 postseason ERA — in Game 2. The lefthander pitched 7-2/3 scoreless innings and struck out seven when he faced the Braves in late July.  

Role players

The Braves are carrying a 12-man pitching staff in the NLDS. Charlie Culberson is starting for the injured Dansby Swanson at shortstop. The injury positioned the Braves to carry three catchers — Tyler Flowers, Kurt Suzuki and Rene Rivera. The rest of the bench consists of Lucas Duda, Ryan Flaherty and Lane Adams. 

Adams and Suzuki made pinch-hit appearances Thursday. 

The Dodgers are carrying a five-man bench. 

Looking ahead 

Atlanta will host at least one game in the series Sunday at SunTrust Park. Standing-room only tickets went on sale earlier this week. There will be a party outside the stadium tonight for Game 2. If there is a Game 4 Monday in Atlanta, it will be a mid-afternoon start.

» SunTrust Park: Fan guide during 2018 Braves NLDS run

Here is the remaining schedule (All times Eastern):  

Game 1: Dodgers 6, Braves 0
Game 2: Braves at Dodgers, 9:37 p.m. Friday, FS1
Game 3: Dodgers at Braves, 8:07 p.m. Sunday, FS1
Game 4*: Dodgers at Braves, 4:30 p.m. Monday, FS1
Game 5*: Braves at Dodgers, 8:07 p.m., Oct. 10, FS1

* – if necessary

MLB scores, schedule, live updates, news: NL Central, NL West up for grabs; Christian Yelich chasing Triple Crown

MLB scores, schedule, live updates, news: NL Central, NL West up for grabs; Christian Yelich chasing Triple Crown

The final day of the 2018 regular season is in the books and several National League postseason spots remain up for grabs. As per recent tradition, every game started at approximately 3 p.m. ET on Sunday to maximize drama. It’s was a fun day, baseball fans. Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s MLB action.

Sunday’s scores

Two tiebreaker games on tap Monday

For the first time in baseball history, there will be two Game 163 tiebreaker games the day after the end of the regular season. The 162-game regular season was not enough to decide the NL Central and NL West races.

Going into Sunday, the Cubs needed a win and a Brewers loss to clinch the NL Central. The Brewers needed a win and a Cubs loss to clinch. The same applied in the NL West. The Dodgers and Rockies needed a win while the other team lost to clinch the division title.

So what happened? The Brewers, Cubs, Dodgers, and Rockies all won Sunday. Handily too. The combined score of those four games: 48-5. Never underestimate the “they’re all playing teams that have been eliminated and just want to go home” aspect of the final day of the regular season. 

Because the Brewers and Cubs are tied atop the NL Central and the Dodgers and Rockies are tied atop the NL West, there will be two Game 163 tiebreaker games Monday. The schedule:

  • 1:05 p.m. ET: Brewers at Cubs (winner wins NL Central, loser hosts the Wild Card Game)
  • 4:09 p.m. ET: Rockies at Dodgers (winner wins NL West, loser is road team in Wild Card Game)

It is entirely possible the Dodgers’ path to the NLDS will involve winning in San Francisco on Sunday, losing in Los Angeles on Monday, and winning in Chicago or Milwaukee in the Wild Card Game on Tuesday. 

The two tiebreaker games Monday will be MLB‘s first tiebreaker games since the Rays beat the Rangers in Game 163 in 2013 to claim the second wild-card spot. Monday’s games will determine the NL Central champion, the NL West champion, and the two wild card teams. Total chaos. Can’t wait.

Yelich still has a chance at Triple Crown

Thanks to Monday’s tiebreaker game, Brewers outfielder and MVP candidate Christian Yelich will still have a chance to win the first Triple Crown in the National League since Hall of Famer Joe Medwick with the 1937 Cardinals. Game 163 goes into the books as a regular season game. The stats count.

Here’s where Yelich sits in the Triple Crown categories:

  • Batting average: .323 (leads by 14 points)
  • Home runs: 36 (one behind Nolan Arenado for NL lead)
  • Runs batted in: 109 (trails Javier Baez by two for NL lead)

The batting title is in the bag. Hitting two home runs to pass Arenado and picking up three runs batted in to pass Baez will be awfully tough. To make it even tougher, Arenado and Baez are both playing in tiebreaker games Monday as well! So they can still pad their season totals.

Maybe the Game 163 aspect makes it unfair, but winning the Triple Crown is really cool, and Yelich still has a chance to do it Monday.

Blackmon hits for the cycle

In what amounted to a must-win game for the Rockies, Charlie Blackmon delivered the first ever Game 162 cycle in baseball history on Sunday. Blackmon had a triple in the first inning, a homer in the third inning, an infield single in the fifth inning, and a double in the eighth inning. Here’s the homer:

Blackmon’s cycle is the fourth in baseball this season. Mookie Betts hit for the cycle in early August and Yelich hit for the cycle twice in the span of 20 days recently. Blackmon had the ninth cycle in Rockies history and the first since Arenado hit for the cycle last August.

A’s Davis finishes with .247 average

For the fourth consecutive season, Khris Davis is a .247 hitter. Davis went 0 for 2 on Sunday before being removed from the game as part of the A’s mass exodus in the meaningless regular season finale. Here are his batting averages the last four years carried out another decimal point:

  • 2015: .2474
  • 2016: .2468
  • 2017: .2473
  • 2018: .2465

So, technically, Davis hit .247 for the fourth straight season and also finished with his lowest batting average in those four years. Still a pretty neat bit of symmetry. When you’ve hit 40-plus home runs in three straight seasons like Davis, walking around with a .247 batting average 24/7 is A-OK.

Andujar ties AL rookie record

Yankees rookie third baseman Miguel Andujar strengthened his Rookie of the Year case with his 47th double of the season Sunday afternoon. The high fly ball clanked in and out of Brock Holt’s glove near the Green Monster.

Andujar’s double is notable because it tied Fred Lynn’s American League rookie doubles record. Here are the most doubles among AL rookies all-time:

  1. Miguel Andujar, 2018 Yankees: 47
  2. Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox: 47
  3. Hal Trosky, 1934 Indians: 45
  4. Roy Johnson, 1929 Tigers: 45
  5. Shoeless Joe Jackson, 1911 Naps: 45

Andujar broke Joe DiMaggio’s franchise rookie record with his 45th double early in the season. As recently as last Opening Day, DiMaggio held he rookie franchise record for doubles (44) and home runs (29). Now those records are held by Andujar (47) and Aaron Judge (52), respectively.

Flaherty finishes with impressive strikeout rate

Cardinals rookie righty Jack Flaherty did not finish his season on a strong note Sunday — he allowed four runs in 2 2/3 innings to the Cubs — but it was an overall excellent season for the 22-year-old. He threw 151 innings with a 3.34 ERA in 28 starts. Flaherty also posted the fourth highest strikeout rate in history for a rookie pitcher (min. 150 innings):

  1. Kerry Wood, 1998 Cubs: 33.3 percent of batters faced
  2. Doc Gooden, 1984 Mets: 31.4 percent
  3. Hideo Nomo, 1995 Dodgers: 30.3 percent
  4. Jack Flaherty, 2018 Cardinals: 29.6 percent
  5. Noah Syndergaard, 2015 Mets & Jose Fernandez, 2013 Marlins: 27.5 percent

That is some company for Mr. Flaherty. Heck of a rookie season for him. 

Orioles one-hit Astros

The 47-115 Orioles closed out their season on a high note. Three Orioles pitchers (Jimmy Yacabonis, Paul Fry, Mychal Givens) combined to one-hit the defending World Series champion Astros on Sunday. Granted, the Astros subbed out most of their regulars in the early innings and played more to not get hurt than win, but still. A one-hitter is pretty cool.

Even with the one-hit loss, the Astros just wrapped up one of the most dominant regular seasons in baseball history. Beyond their 103-59 record, they finished with one of the best runs scored to runs allowed differentials in baseball since World War II. The list:

  1. 1969 Orioles: 1.51
  2. 2018 Astros: 1.49
  3. 1954 Indians: 1.48
  4. 1948 Indians: 1.48
  5. 2001 Mariners: 1.48

The Astros are a juggernaut. I’m not sure there’s a team I’d rather face less in a short postseason series than Houston.

Quick hits

Relive updates from Sunday’s regular season final

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