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Kluber’s 18-strikeout gem one for the ages

CLEVELAND – One of the great things about baseball is that even though there are so many games, there are always some that will stand out in your mind pretty much forever. I drove to Cleveland Wednesday, like I have dozens of times over the last 20 years, with a checklist to get items for several stories. And then I stumbled upon a performance you never could have expected.

By a quick estimate, I have probably been to more than 2,500 baseball games in my life, either as a reporter or just sitting in the stands. I have seen exactly one no-hitter, by Bartolo Colon for the Bisons in 1997. People routinely ask about the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen and I come up with Colon right away. Same for R.A. Dickey’s “Imperfect Perfect Game” against Durham in 2010, when he gave up a leadoff single and then retired the next 27 men.

In the big leagues, my standouts are Roger Clemens’ one-hitter with 15 strikeouts for the Yankees in Seattle during the 2000 ALCS, Madison Bumgarner’s relief work for the Giants in Game Seven of the World Series last year or Pedro Martinez’s six no-hit innings in Cleveland in Game Five of the 1999 division series for the Red Sox. Those were bigger moments than Wednesday but they weren’t better. Same for a no-hitter Boston’s Frank Viola lost in the ninth inning of a 1990 game in Toronto

What Indians pitcher Corey Kluber did Wednesday against St. Louis – a one-hit shutout over eight innings with 18 strikeouts and no walks – was unequivocally the most dominant outing I’ve ever seen.

Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Rosenhaus was calling the game on the Indians Radio Network and quickly agreed with me that Colon jumped out of his memory bank as well. Rosenhaus also pointed to Armando Galarraga’s Jim Joyce-ruined perfect game in Detroit against the Tribe in 2010 and Kluber’s perfect-game bid last July against Kansas City that lasted into the seventh inning.

But Rosenhaus ultimately felt likewise: Kluber vs. St. Louis trumped them all.

The day started with Bob Feller’s widow cutting the ribbon on a great new display in the ballpark’s Terrace Club to honor the legacy of the greatest Indian. Who would ever think Kluber would go on to tie Feller’s 77-year-old franchise strikeout record for a nine-inning game?

Feller in 1938 and Kluber in 2015 now stand alone in that category (Luis Tiant fanned 19 in a 10-inning game vs. Minnesota in 1968). And the superlatives don’t stop there:

• It was just the second time since 1900 a pitcher had at least 18 strikeouts while allowing one hit. The only other time was the famous 20-strikeout game by Chicago’s Kerry Wood against Houston in 1998.

• It was just the second time ever a pitcher had 18 strikeouts while going only eight innings, joining an 18-strikeout outing by Seattle’s Randy Johnson at Texas in 1992. But Johnson gave up two runs on six hits and walked four that night, nowhere near the dominance Kluber showed.

• The 18 strikeouts were the most in the big leagues since Milwaukee’s Ben Sheets had 18 in 2004 and the most by an AL pitcher since Clemens fanned 18 for Toronto against Kansas City in 1998.

• According to the Game Score metric devised for starting pitchers by Bill James, Kluber’s score of 98 is the highest ever for an eight-inning outing. Those records date to 1914.

Kluber won the Cy Young Award last year but entered this game at 0-5, and the Indians were 0-7 in his starts. Talk about a pick-me-up.

“Any time you throw your name in there with Bob Feller, it’s obvisously very humbling and a great accomplishment,” he said. “But more important is getting the win.”

Prior to the game, Indians GM Chris Antonetti was speaking to reporters about his struggling team and the topic of Kluber came up.

“One of Corey’s distinguishing characteristics is his ability to be the same no matter what,” Antonetti said. “If you were in the clubhouse, you wouldn’t know if he won every time he started or lost every time. … That consistency will allow him to turn it around and be successful.”

Manager Terry Francona had a similar feeling, saying before the game he felt Kluber was close to a breakthrough. Afterward, a smiling Francona joked with reporters, “Does anybody else need to ask me if he’s hurt?”

I asked Francona, who’s been in the big leagues as a player, coach or manager off and on since 1981, if it was the best game he’s ever seen and he couldn’t go that far.

“I really have a hard time with those types of questions,” Francona said. “I’ve been through some pretty good games but that was a really good one. You could see it as the game progressed. The pitches were thrown with conviction and confidence and he was attacking with all of them. When you have the talent he does, you can see what can come of it. You don’t see that very often. That was pretty special.”

The bummer of it all was the Indians took Kluber out at 113 pitches, just two strikeouts shy of tying the all-time record of 20 set by Clemens and Wood. It was a 2-0 game and Francona said he was managing with his head and not his heart. Kluber said he knew he was done too. But seriously?

Were it not for Jhonny Peralta’s seventh-inning groundball single to left, there could have been a no-hitter going too. What a decision that would have been. You know they would have kept him in. What’s another 10-15 pitches for a shot at history with a guy with no arm trouble?

“If you’re up 5-0, 6-0, you can be a little bit of a fan,” Francona said. “Not when it’s 2-0. He elevated, he cut it, he spun it, he two-seamed it. He had everything going.”

Amazingly enough, Kluber had no idea how many strikeouts he had. Catcher Roberto Perez joked that he only knew he had been throwing the ball to third base a lot.

“I’ve got a lot of other stuff to worry about on the mound than how many strikeouts I had,” Kluber said. “I came in here and was watching the last inning and they showed something on the broadcast that said it.”

Kluber stayed cool afterward and wasn’t that impressed. But everyone else lucky enough to have been in Progressive Field on a chilly Wednesday in May sure was. A week from now, you probably wouldn’t remember a game like that at all. As it turns out, it becomes a memory for a lifetime.

“I’m so excited,” Perez said. “I can’t wait to watch the replay.”

I already have. It’s unforgettable stuff.

They said it

• Cubs manager Joe Maddon to Chicago reporters on how there’s no stigma using young shortstop Addison Russell ninth in the batting order instead of eighth: “The batting order is a circular situation. It’s not the Columbus batting order that falls off the face of the earth. It keeps coming around and around and around.”

• Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, to reporters Wednesday in Tampa about the continued confusion runners have about whether to run over catchers: “You have to make that decision like 70 feet out. You can’t decide at the last second. So it’s not even in our minds to run guys over anymore. If you run a guy over and you’re not supposed to, they’re going to send the Wells Report after you or something.”

• Francona on the Cardinals’ continued dominance: “Organization-wise, they’ve made some really tough, good decisions. They’ve picked times when they’ve let people walk. They have a great fan base, so even though they’re not a big market, they can kind of act like one, because they have unbelievable fans. “It’s a great baseball city. They’ve done a really good job of developing not just position players, but pitchers also. They just keep them coming, and they step in and win.”

• Cardinals manager Mike Matheny on the Indians’ strong rotation: “These guys got some arms. All the way through, there’s nobody flipping stuff. Every one of them has got some horsepower.”

Around the horn

• Yogi Berra’s 90th birthday was Tuesday and Dave Kaplan of the Wall Street Journal opened his celebration of the milestone with this gem of a Yogiism: “One spring, when Yogi was managing the Yankees, a streaker darted onto the field in nothing but a pair of sneakers and a paper bag. Asked later whether the streaker was a man or woman, Yogi purportedly replied, ‘I don’t know, they had a bag over their head.’ “

• Tweet from Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman, out for the year with a torn ACL but making the best of his time by returning to Duke to do his rehab: “Back to school today. Rehab, class, training, then class. Grind is real. All worth it to have that diploma and my knee game strong!”

• The A’s entered the weekend 1-12 in one-run games – and no other team had more than eight such losses. They were 0-6 in extra innings, approached only by the Pirates’ 0-5 mark.

• A fireworks mishap caused one of the center-field smokestacks in Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park to catch fire during Friday night’s game against San Francisco. What was the music selection played while firefighters doused the flames? Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”