Corey Kluber overcomes rough start to slow down Red Sox

BOSTON -- These are harrowing and uncertain times for the brotherhood of American League Cy Young Award candidates.

Chris Sale, in a strong position to win his first career Cy, is on the disabled list for the second time this month with left shoulder inflammation. Trevor Bauer, his main competition, is expected to miss four to six weeks with a stress fracture in his right fibula. Justin Verlander has been afflicted with home-run-itis of late, and the Tampa Bay Rays might be hesitant to push Blake Snell too hard as the innings mount and elimination from the postseason becomes a foregone conclusion.

Amid the chaos, the time is right for Corey Kluber to swoop in, collect his third career Cy Young and spirit it away to his winter home in Massachusetts. As September beckons, all Kluber had to do to begin the stretch run in style was beat the Boston Red Sox on their home turf on Monday.

Things began ominously. Kluber's velocity was fine, and his stuff was crisp enough, but he allowed hits to six of the first 12 batters he faced and fell behind the Red Sox 3-0 in the second inning. The Sox are 88-38 overall and 44-17 at Fenway this season, so that's a hole not many teams escape.

But Kluber kept plugging and throwing up zeroes, and the Indians eventually got to Rick Porcello and found a way, winning 5-4. Was it a "statement" victory? That's a stretch, given that both teams are playoff locks. But it made for an entertaining start to the marquee series of the week in the American League.

Kluber pitched into the seventh inning -- long enough to collect his 16th win of the season. Starting outfielders Melky Cabrera, Michael Brantley and Greg Allen all homered, and closer Cody Allen survived a harrowing ninth before a crowd of 37,274 at Fenway Park.

On a comfortable, 70-degree night in New England, just about everyone in attendance felt a playoff atmosphere. Greg Allen was on alert after he received a heads-up from Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor before taking his position in center field for the bottom of the eighth.

"When they were playing 'Sweet Caroline,' Frankie told me to take a moment and listen to the crowd," Allen said. "With the history and the nostalgia of this place, it was a fun environment, a competitive atmosphere and high intensity. They're such a great team over there. It makes it fun."

Cody Allen felt it too, as he prepared to face Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Mitch Moreland in the bottom of the ninth. He threw 28 pitches before retiring Ian Kinsler on a popup with the tying and winning runs on base.

"That's what called 'holding on for dear life,'" Cleveland manager Terry Francona said.

Kluber, true to form, kept his emotions in check in the clubhouse and for public consumption. How stoic is Cleveland's ace? After mulling all the nickname possibilities for MLB's upcoming Players' Weekend, Kluber decided to ditch his 2017 entry, "Klubes." He's taking a less frivolous approach this year and going with "Kluber."

It's simply not in Kluber's nature to concede that this game was any more important than his next start against the Royals, who trail Cleveland by 33½ games in the AL Central.

"I think a lot of people are making a big deal of this series because we're both leading our divisions right now," Kluber said. "But we're kind of taking it as another series. There's no guarantee that the two of us will end up playing each other down the road in the postseason."

Kluber's lower strikeout rate and slightly elevated WHIP make it appear that he has slipped a tad from 2017, but that's largely a product of his high standards. He has struck out 166 batters while walking only 23 this season, and at one point he threw an incredible 46 1/3 innings without issuing a base on balls. He has taken more of a pitch-to-contact approach while pumping fastballs early in the count, and his 14.4 pitches per inning are the fewest by any pitcher in the majors.

Kluber has thrown with greater self-assurance since receiving an injection in his right knee during the All-Star break. When things aren't quite right, he's determined to find the reason. After a rough first two innings Monday, he focused on pitching inside to open up the outer edge of the plate. The Red Sox failed to advance a runner beyond first base against him after the second inning.

Kluber has a history of closing with a rush when hardware is within reach. In his two Cy Young seasons, 2014 and 2017, he went a combined 10-1 with a 1.47 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 106-to-10 in September. He isn't exceptional because he "rises to the occasion" or strives to do more to compensate for the loss of a teammate due to injury. He is exceptional because he approaches every day with the same dogged work ethic, and his pulse never varies.

"He's the definition of an ace," Cody Allen said. "He's the backbone of that rotation, and the rotation is the backbone of this team. He's such an 'in the moment' guy. He just tries to make one good pitch, then another good pitch and another good pitch. If you stack enough good pitches together, you have about 110 of them, and you look up at the end of the game, and you've done your job."

Does Kluber have another late Cy Young run in him this year? That's the last thing on his mind, but it wouldn't surprise anyone if he does.

"You know he's not going to shortchange you on being ready," Francona said. "He's strong with his routines and his work, so his tank won't be on low. He takes such good care of his body, he'll be strong until the last day we play."

That day will be sometime in October. If Monday night's game was a playoff preview, the Indians and Red Sox have a lot of good things in store when the games matter most.