CLEVELAND — It’s a short stroll from the mound to the dugout at Progressive Field, too quick to allow Corey Kluber a chance to escape his pitching trance and acknowledge his surroundings.
He’d walk off the rubber and pace back to the bench in a methodical manner, unaware of every human in the ballpark supplying him with a standing ovation.
When Kluber pitched, there was usually a standing ovation.
For five years, Kluber was as dominant as any pitcher in the sport. Every five days — every four during Cleveland’s October 2016 championship bid — was a spectacle.
But that’s what happens when you’re poker-faced and programmed to rack up strikeouts with perfectly placed fastballs and slurves.
Kluber announced his retirement Friday after a brilliant 13-year career in which he blossomed from non-prospect to award-winning artist.
A Kluber outing was a treat. It was a rare display of precision and efficiency that allowed him to compile gaudy innings totals and gaudier strikeout totals, and not with an overpowering heater or a 12-to-6 curve, but with such command and conviction, hitters could never feel comfortable.
There was no better example of his sorcery than May 13, 2015, one of those mystique-filled days when sports feel scripted.
Anne Feller, the widow of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, snipped a red ribbon that afternoon to commemorate the grand opening of an exhibit honoring her husband at Progressive Field. Then, from a suite, she watched Kluber match Feller’s franchise record with 18 strikeouts in a nine-inning game.
Kluber carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Cardinals that night when Jhonny Peralta poked a two-out single to center. Kluber watched Cody Allen shut the door in the ninth, preventing him from flirting with more history.
Eight innings. One hit. No walks. Eighteen strikeouts. A special showcase in front of Anne Feller and one of the most prolific pitching performances in the history of a franchise that dates back to 1901.
And with the crowd’s roar inching closer to a crescendo after the top half of each inning, Kluber retreated to the dugout, unfazed, gazing ahead at nothing in particular.
Kluber ranks third in club history in strikeouts, behind only Feller and Sam McDowell, but he blows away everyone in strikeout rate. Those are the only three pitchers in team history with more than two consecutive seasons of 200 innings and 200 strikeouts. Feller and McDowell each accomplished the feat for four straight seasons; Kluber did it for five in a row.
From 2014-18, Kluber ranked alongside the game’s greats, including Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale. He exceeded 200 innings and 220 strikeouts in each of those years. He ranked second in the majors in innings pitched, fourth in ERA (2.85), third in strikeouts and third in fWAR. In 2017, he led the AL with a 2.25 ERA and tallied nearly twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed.
He’s among 22 pitchers in league history to win multiple Cy Young Awards. He captured the hardware in 2014 and 2017, the only Cleveland pitcher to win more than one. He also finished third in the balloting in 2016 and 2018.
After that five-year stretch, Kluber battled injuries and bounced around the American League, to the Rangers, Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox. He recorded a no-hitter with the Yankees in 2021. He made one final playoff appearance with the Rays in 2022, ironically in Cleveland, where he served up a series-ending home run to Oscar Gonzalez. By that point, though, he had exhausted his October powers.
Kluber made a valiant effort to break Cleveland’s World Series hex in 2016. He logged a 0.89 ERA in his first five starts that postseason despite twice pitching on short rest because the club was missing injured starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. He finally sputtered in Game 7 of the World Series against the Cubs, running on fumes in another short-rest outing. Had the Indians emerged triumphant, they might have erected statues of Kluber and Rajai Davis on E. 9th Street the next day.
No one would have predicted such a rise to prominence for the right-hander.
Stuck in the depths of a rebuild in 2010, the Indians needed to salvage something for the final two months of Jake Westbrook’s contract. They dealt him to the Cardinals in a three-team trade that also included the Padres. Kluber’s strikeout rate caught the attention of Cleveland’s front office, but little else did. His name didn’t surface on any top prospect list. He was 24 and pitching at Double-A San Antonio. Cleveland couldn’t be picky, though.
Kluber called his parents to deliver the news about the trade in his typical, monotone manner. His dad, on the other hand, was ecstatic. Jim Kluber was a Cleveland native. He attended Mayfield High School. The Indians were his childhood team.
But that was Kluber: unfazed, even when those around him celebrated and cheered. During his Cleveland tenure, that was the scene every fifth night.
(Photo: Ron Schwane / Getty Images)