CLEVELAND — Corey Kluber has been relieved already.
The Indians will open the playoffs with their ace on hold.
Instead of starting their Cy Young Award favorite in Game 1 of the AL Division Series, the defending league champions will pitch Trevor Bauer on Thursday against the New York Yankees. Kluber, who has been baseball’s most dominant pitcher for months, is scheduled to start Game 2.
Manager Terry Francona said part of his decision to go with the rubber-armed Bauer in the opener is so he can use his best pitcher — Kluber — in a potential Game 5.
“I think on a number of reasons it makes good sense,” Francona said Tuesday before the Yankees beat Minnesota in the AL wild-card game. “Not that you go into a game thinking you’re going to lose, but if you do, you have your ace coming back. The biggest thing was keeping him on his five-day (schedule). That was really important to Kluber. That was really the only way we could do it.
“Again, you don’t want to put the cart ahead of the horse, but if you’re fortunate enough to win in four, you have your ace ready for the next series.”
The decision to go with Bauer over Kluber — or even ahead of scheduled Game 3 starter Carlos Carrasco — is curious on a number of levels. Kluber has been overpowering this season, going 18-4 with a 2.25 ERA on his way to perhaps his second Cy Young Award. The right-hander went 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA in six September starts and would seem to give the Indians their best chance to win.
But Francona is more concerned with giving his ace normal rest, and with off days after Games 2 and 4, Kluber will have his usual recovery time between starts.
The move seems risky, and could backfire if the Indians drop the opener, but Francona isn’t worried about Bauer, who last year nearly cost Cleveland in the AL Championship Series after he cut his finger while fixing a drone.
“The growth he’s made, not just being a teammate but as a pitcher, he’s come a long way and we’re proud of him,” Francona said. “And he’s continuing to work and he takes feedback, he asks for feedback. Trevor’s done a heck of a job. I mean, for him to get the ball in Game 1 speaks volumes.
“Trevor will never back down from a challenge and we love that about him.”
Kluber didn’t start last year’s ALDS opener against Boston, but that was because he was coming off a hamstring injury. This is different.
Bauer shook off a slow start and went 17-9 with a 4.19 ERA in 31 starts. Since he began throwing a slider, Bauer is 10-1 with 2.60 ERA in 14 games.
“He’s been one of the better pitchers in the league,” Francona said. “He’s durable. He bounces back really well. That’s another thing. We can use him, whether it’s a second start, or in the bullpen, probably easier than anybody on our roster. That’s another factor. The chances of anybody besides Kluber going real deep probably aren’t real good.”
Josh Tomlin is penciled in for Game 4, but he will be available in the first three games.
Also, All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley will be on the ALDS 25-man roster as a pinch-hitter. Brantley was sidelined for 50 games with an injured ankle ligament before returning last week and getting a single in his first at-bat since Aug. 8.
Francona said the hope is for Brantley’s role to expand if the Indians advance. The 30-year-old was sidelined during Cleveland’s run to the World Series last year following shoulder operations.
Francona had some other tough roster decisions, including at third base where he’s chosen to platoon Giovanny Urshela and Erik Gonzalez, dropping Yandy Diaz.
“And that’s where Brantley comes into play,” Francona said. “His ability to hit for one of those guys, we view it kind of as a weapon. So we’ll have someone over there who’s really good defensively. If we feel the need to hit, we can.”
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