CLEVELAND — Closer John Axford and starting pitcher Corey Kluber have become close since Axford joined the Indians as a free agent this offseason.
With friends like Axford, Kluber needs no enemies.
Axford, who was highly effective over the first month, ruined what could have been a glorious day at the ballpark for Kluber and the Indians, allowing a three-run home run to Dayan Viciedo in the ninth inning Sunday that lifted the White Sox to a 4-3 win.
The loss prevented Cleveland from completing its first series sweep of the season and positing its first three-game winning streak.
Maybe not more importantly, but grossly unfair all the same, was that the shocking defeat deprived Kluber of a victory in what may have been the best performance of his career.
The right-hander allowed just a run on three hits — a solo home run to Jose Abreu in the opening inning — and two walks while striking out a career-high 13 batters over eight innings.
“Klubes was so good today,” manager Terry Francona said. “He just pitched his heart out. That’s about as good as you can pitch. The ball Abreu hit in the first inning was a good pitch. He just made the adjustment and hit it out. After that, man, he didn’t give up anything.
“He did everything today. He’s so aggressive. With the bigger hitters in their lineup, he’d come in hard, and that opened up the plate for everything else. He was working ahead. The ball’s got late movement both ways. He’s just got a lot of weapons.”
After Abreu’s homer, Kluber was about as dominant, allowing just two more hits and striking out seven straight batters from the third to fifth innings. The seven consecutive strikeouts set a club record, surpassing the previous mark of six shared by Bob Feller, Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley and Mitch Talbot.
“(Pitching coach) Mickey (Callaway) told me that when I was done,” Kluber said of the record. “It’s pretty cool to be mentioned in the same sentence as Bob Feller, but, other than that, it’s just a nice byproduct of having a good game.
“It’s just one of those things that happens when you make good pitches. I got in a groove there in the middle of the game.”
Kluber equalled the club record of Finley, CC Sabathia and Dave Burba for strikeouts at Jacobs/Progressive Field, and coupled with 11 strikeouts in his previous outing, became the first Cleveland pitcher since Dennis Eckersley in 1976 to strike out 11 or more batters in consecutive home outings.
The Indians also got a record-setting effort from a surprising source in catcher George Kottaras, who was recalled from Triple-A Columbus on Saturday to fill in for Yan Gomes.
Kottaras produced the bulk of Cleveland’s offense, hitting homers in his first two at-bats to become the first Indians player to go deep in each of his first two at-bats with the team.
“How bout that?” Francona said. “That was something. He did a good job. He did a really good job. That was fun to see.”
“I wasn’t planning on it,” said Kottaras, a five-year veteran backup, who had just two hits in 25 at-bats for Columbus this season and 29 career big-league homers. “I just wanted to help in any way I could. Those things happen. I felt good at the plate and had a good time out there.”
Nearly everyone wearing an Indians uniform was having a good time until Axford arrived in the ninth. Axford walked the first batter he faced, Gordon Beckham, before striking out the dangerous Abreu. Another walk to Adam Dunn preceded Axford’s 2-2 fastball to Viciedo, who lined the game-winning homer over the wall in right field.
“I fell behind guys. It didn’t work out too well in that sense,” said Axford, who entered the outing with an American League-leading nine saves in 10 chances. “Two guys were on without me even challenging them. It wasn’t until the guy that I challenged put the ball in play, things didn’t go well. But obviously, that’s what you want to do. You want to challenge guys and have them put the ball in play. Those walks and putting guys on, giving them free passes, that’s something I definitely need to cut out, and I have the last five times out. Just today, I couldn’t find it.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook and follow him @CAwesomeheimer on Twitter.