There are certain games in the postseason, particularly in the World Series, whose results seem scripted from the first pitch. I’m not trying to suggest that the postseason is rigged or anything fishy, of course; it’s more that some games have a feeling of inevitability about them. Baseball is a sport that, if nothing else, is wont to punish feelings of inevitability with wild upsets, but even here, there are those games that, in the third inning, make you sit back and say “Yeah, I think I see where this one is going.”
Unsurprisingly, these games usually revolve around very good pitching. There are of course those games when a team just jumps out to such a lead that mathematically, they’re unlikely to be beaten, but that’s not really in the spirit of our exercise here. Brute force can be fun in winning baseball games, but in the World Series, weird feelings and hunches rule, and that is the realm of the Unhittable Starting Pitcher. In Game 1 of the World Series, Corey Kluber of the Indians was just that, unhittable to the point of the actual results and outs in the inning being largely pro forma.
At the beginning of the inning, we, as an audience, knew that Kluber would get through the lineup unscathed–the fear and panic of the game, at least when Kluber toed the rubber, evaporated into a blasé certainty. A blasé certainty during what was undeniably the most important start of Kluber’s life. And while baseball can of course turn on a dime, with perfect games in the eighth inning becoming heartbreaking losses, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone–whether they’re from Chicago, Cleveland, or some neutral ground–that thought the Cubs would get to Kluber last night.
What I want to cover right now is the moment that I think we can pinpoint as the decisive “nuh-uh moment” for Kluber’s World Series gem: the moment at which Kluber effectively simmed ahead to the seventh-inning appearance of Andrew Miller in the Indians’ 6-0 victory: his consecutive strikeouts of Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler and third baseman Kris Bryant in the top of the third inning.
Remarkably, the strikeouts, as impressive as they were, are only part of the story. In the top of the third, Kluber would face some of the only adversity he’d see in his World Series debut, and while it was not quite as dramatic as the home-run-that-was-not-quite-a-home-run hit by Kyle Schwarber just an inning later, the single that Kluber worked around in the second, to my mind, more decisively represented the fact that he would simply not be a human capable of failure. As should probably come as no surprise, the only moment that really threatened Kluber’s dominance was, of course, a single at the hands of David Ross, the Cubs’ catcher-cum-father figure. Yes, that David Ross.
It's perhaps this detail–that Kluber gave up a hit to Ross, who was really in the game not for his superior bat but to caddy Cubs pitcher Jon Lester–that made the third inning seem unique. It is also perhaps the fact that Ross’ hit was the first time the Cubs produced anything more than a little league at-bat against Kluber: Cubs shortstop Addison Russell started the third inning by striking out on three pitches, marking Kluber’s sixth strikeout in seven outs. He’d slow on this pace considerably, but by the third inning, the taste of history was probably in the air for Kluber, which made Ross’ single all the more surprising.
Ross’ at-bat was the typical sort of grind that you’d expect from a backup catcher: strike looking, ball, strike looking, fouled off to stay alive at 1-2, and then a pitch muscled into left field for a hit. Much of the hit itself was due to Ross’ ability to be aggressive at the plate, even at two strikes, which allowed him to continue to put bat to ball in a way that the Cubs’ formidable sluggers had not, despite sometimes solid approaches (especially from Schwarber, who probably deserves more ink spilled over him than he’ll receive for this game).
And so Ross’ at-bat meant two very crucial things for the Cubs, one material and one potential: he was (materially) on base and represented a potential run to cut into their scoring deficit; he (potentially and more importantly) had also figured out how to best approach a pitcher who heretofore had let up nothing more hopeful than a pop fly to the third-base side and a swinging strikeout on a full count. Foul off pitches, stay in the at-bat, and focus on getting solid contact: these seemed to be the tools that Ross had brought to the beleaguered youngsters of the Cubs on the proverbial stone tablets.
And yet! And yet. And yet: the next at-bat by Dexter Fowler would be the decisive moment at which we would see that, no, there would be no easy resolution of Corey Kluber for the Cubs. After looking mortal against Ross of all people, Kluber completely dominated Fowler in his at-bat, needing only three pitches to get him to strike out swinging. Even more damning was the order of strikes: looking, looking, swinging. Unable to build on the lesson that came before him in Ross’ at-bat–and make no mistake, I’m sure Fowler noticed the lesson and wanted to build on it–the center fielder was unable to make any contact whatsoever, and was aggressive only when the 0-2 count made it almost a moot point.
Bryant’s chance at heroism was frustrated in a similar way, though he peppered some contact and patience in with the strikes, needing four pitches to go down swinging. Still, what was clear about Bryant’s at-bat was that, again, he was unable to utilize the lesson that Ross had given him: he came up swinging twice and quickly found himself in an 0-2 count. While he then took a pitch to get to a slightly sunnier 1-2 count and then fouled a pitch off, Bryant was clearly not in control of the at-bat: Kluber was decisively in the driver’s seat. And the placement of his pitches, particularly in Bryant’s at-bat, was masterful, with shades of Coyote-Road Runner style “now you see it, now you don’t” frustration.
This, as a brief aside, is why the postseason is so important to new fandom. I learned how to enjoy baseball by watching postseason pitching, and the uncanny moment at which a new fan can see the choices in location made by the pitcher and the movement in their pitches that elicits swings and misses from the batter is what baseball fandom is built on. (Well, that and dingers, which I guess the Indians were also kind enough to provide via their offensive hero of the night–but I’m sure there will be more to say about Roberto Perez before the series is over.)
In Game 1, Corey Kluber taught a clinic on pitch movement, location, and deception, one that would show even the most casual fan what an imbalance of power a truly great pitcher can produce at the plate. And after striking out the potential NL MVP on five pitches and stranding the first baserunner he’d allowed in the game, Kluber was as good as on auto-pilot. I’m sure he probably didn’t feel that way–I can’t imagine the adrenaline and pressure he was under–but for the audience, Kluber had established himself as unhittable, totally dominant.
This might explain why the massive double by Schwarber in the fourth felt less like a rally and more like a bump in the road. Until the mini-rally against the otherwise-also-dominant Andrew Miller in the seventh inning, the Cubs, perhaps baseball’s most fearsome offensive team, literally seemed to have no chance at scoring a run. To be sure, other people might feel differently. Maybe Indians fans were deeply worried and nervous the whole game, sure that Cleveland luck would bite them when they least expected it. Maybe Cubs fans kept the faith and thought the one big hit was just the next batter away. And maybe fans watching had a totally different affective response to Kluber’s dominance than I did. I acknowledge it all.
But what I want to assert in response is that, at the moment he struck out Fowler and Bryant and, more importantly, stranded Ross, Kluber revealed that he wasn’t just pitching well–he was conducting a symphony, in which each measured bit was being revealed piece by piece. In that moment, the complexion of the game changed totally from tense expectation to an eerie, calm inevitability. That probably won’t happen again in Game 4 or Game 7 for him, but Kluber can rest easy knowing that, at least for Game 1, he was Unhittable.