Posted on June 1, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine

Cleveland Indians Corey Kluber

Image via cbssports.com

The Cleveland Indians have not received the caliber of starting pitching they expected this season, and that includes last year’s postseason hero Corey Kluber. But Thursday may have been a turning point for both Kluber and the Indians.

In his return to action after spending nearly a month on the DL with a lower back strain, Kluber looked like his old self, tossing six shutout innings in a win over the Oakland Athletics. The win ensures Cleveland will be at least in a tie for first place in the AL Central heading into the weekend.

In his six starts before going to the DL, Kluber had posted a 5.06 ERA, a far cry from when he won the Cy Young in 2014 or led the Indians in the postseason last fall. But on Thursday, Kluber looked like a completely different pitcher. In six scoreless frames against Oakland, Kluber allowed just two hits and one walk, striking out 10 and earning his fourth win of the season.

“He was crisp right from the get-go,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Kluber’s performance. “The score ended up 8-0. But, in his six innings, it was 1-0 the whole way and, man, he was really good.”

Oddly enough, Kluber’s outing could have been even better. Francona pulled his starter after just 77 pitches, pledging to watch his pitch count during his return from injury. But as it turns out, 77 pitches were all that Kluber needed to announce his return from the DL in style.

“It’s nice to have him back, which kind of gives everyone a lift,” Francona added. “But then when he comes out and just throws the way he did. In fact, I hate to use the word ‘throw’ because he pitched and his breaking ball was so, so good.”

Kluber’s performance Thursday marks a potential turning point for Cleveland’s starting rotation. The Indians have been carried by their dominating bullpen this season, while their rotation ranks towards the bottom of the American League in ERA. Aside from Kluber’s struggles before his DL stint, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer have also been disappointments for the Indians over the first two months of the season.

Salazar has been moved to the bullpen and threw a scoreless inning on Thursday in his first relief outing of the season. Meanwhile, both Tomlin and Bauer were much improved in their most recent outing. On Sunday, Tomlin threw a complete game, allowing just one run in a win against the Royals. On Tuesday, Bauer struck out 14 in seven innings of work against the same Oakland lineup that Kluber dominated on Thursday.

Carlos Carrasco has been the lone constant in Cleveland’s rotation this season, posting a 2.89 ERA over 10 starts. Meanwhile, Mike Clevinger has pitched well enough to retain his spot in the rotation after taking Kluber’s spot when he went on the DL last month. If Kluber, Tomlin, and Bauer can each build off of their most recent start and show more consistency, the Indians will have a rotation that looks a lot more like the one they envisioned before the start of the season.

At the start of the season, the Indians were expected to ride their pitching staff to another division title and possibly a World Series title. Things haven’t gone according to plan thus far, but the Indians didn’t dominate the AL Central from start to finish last season either. With Kluber’s start on Thursday and encouraging signs from Tomlin and Bauer, Cleveland’s rotation may finally be starting to live up to expectations, putting the Indians in a position to seize control of the AL Central in the weeks to come.

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