CHICAGO — Before Game 4, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona wanted to make one thing clear: The Indians haven’t exactly played their best baseball this fall.

“We haven’t swung the bats very well the last couple of weeks,” he said. “I think that it shows what kind of team we can be, though.”

Whoa! Already, they’re ducking in Wrigley Field. They don’t know what hit them. Just recently they were spraying champagne after blitzing the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now? It’s so quiet you can hear the ivy grow.

Maybe Saturday night’s 7-2 throttling of the suffocating Chicago Cubs partly qualifies as the offensive outburst Francona was talking about. But even with Illinois native Jason Kipnis smashing a three-run home run in the seventh inning to push the anthem “Go, Cubs! Go!” ever closer to mothballs for the winter, it was hard to notice much else other than the steamroller that is Corey Kluber.

Somewhere, the late Bob Feller is standing and applauding.

“I think you appreciate the little things about him more and more,” Andrew Miller, the star reliever Cleveland acquired from the New York Yankees in July, said of playing alongside our newest Mr. October. “Watching him execute pitches that can move in any direction, his ability to get weak contact and hit his spots—it’s something that everybody can appreciate right now, except maybe Cubs fans.”

Ya think? No question the Cubs went home to bed Saturday night still seeing Kluber’s sliders spinning every which way but loose. Cleveland’s Cy Young winner made monkeys out of them. And the Cubs weren’t long ago considered baseball’s best team, what with that gaudy 103 regular-season win total.

But while Chicago feasts on fastballs, Kluber and Co. have been feeding it a steady diet of breaking balls.

While the Cubs talked at length the other night about how they hadn’t faced Kluber until Game 1 and that now they knew something about him, they’d be more prepared for him in Game 4, the Indians are thriving despite not exactly having intimate knowledge of a bunch of Chicago pitchers they hadn’t seen this summer.

Instead of talking, they’re doing.

Cleveland leads this World Series 3-1 and can close it out Sunday night in Wrigley Field.

You bet the Indians are beginning to think about champagne.

“I try not to, but the thought is creeping into my mind,” Kipnis admitted. “It’s not going to be an easy win to get. They’ve got their stud on the mound in Jon Lester.

“But we’re close. We’re almost there.”

Kluber, working on three days’ rest, sliced up the Cubs with 1,000 paper cuts. He only struck out six in six innings. He isn’t the dominant, in-your-face ace that wows you with velocity and power. Watch him once, and maybe you don’t come away with the same giddy feeling you have after watching a Madison Bumgarner or a Clayton Kershaw.

But watch him a few times—say, every fourth day of October—and man, do you ever get it.

“He’s done things you can’t expect in the postseason,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “It’s been so fun to watch.”

Over 30.1 innings pitched this postseason, Kluber has surrendered just three earned runs (0.89 ERA). He’s struck out 35. He’s 4-1 in five starts.

“Oh, man, he’s been our rock,” Indians outfielder Rajai Davis said. “Our foundation. Our middle piece. Man, he’s been our everything.

“If we can, we’re going to carry him in our celebration, put him on our shoulders and march him around the field.”

It was just silly at times.

In the fourth inning, he threw no straight fastballs to the Cubs. He offered them six curveballs, three sliders and three sinkers.

In the fifth, he threw two curves, two sliders and two sinkers.

In the sixth, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras swung and missed, badly off balance, at three straight curveballs. Good morning, good afternoon and goodnight.

By then, trailing 4-1, the Chicago’s frustration was evident on the field.

“Oh yeah, you could see that,” Davis said. “We could see it on the mound with [John] Lackey.”

Lackey was barking at plate umpire Marvin Hudson early.

Kluber never broke focus.

“He doesn’t really show emotion on the field,” Davis said. “He’s really good at concealing that and concentrating on the job at hand.”

How good? Here’s a little secret that maybe Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Co. either didn’t pick up on or, if they did, attempted to bury somewhere in their subconscious: Standard practice is the more a hitter sees a pitcher, the advantage swings to the hitter.

But with Kluber, the numbers show he gets better and better the more he sees rival hitters. In 2016, in his first start against an opponent, he went 7-7 with a 3.82 ERA.

His second time facing opponents, he was 8-2 with a 2.55 ERA. And his third time against rivals, he was 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA.

“That speaks to how smart he is,” Callaway said. “He is a really smart baseball player.”

The way Kluber sequences and mixes up his pitches, Callaway said, a rival team might not even see his changeup until somewhere down the road.

The Cubs? Oh, they’re seeing breaking pitches the way a road sees snowflakes in the middle of a three-day blizzard. Talk about getting dumped on.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that they’re a pretty good-hitting fastball team,” Callaway said. “They’re doing a good job of spoiling some pitches we’re throwing.”

Take note: Spoiling pitches, such as fouling them off, is a lot different from doing damage.

“As much game-planning as I’ve done over the years, breaking balls work against almost everybody,” Callaway continued. “Soft works better than hard against almost everybody.”

The only thing softer than some of Cleveland’s pitches are the results the Cubs are getting when they swing at them. Heavy favorites entering the series, the Cubs are watching the faith of their fans evaporate like a Kluber slider:

No—don’t underestimate what Kluber has done. To find the last pitcher to start and win Games 1 and 4 in a World Series, you have to travel all the way back to 1990, when the Cincinnati Reds’ Jose Rijo did it against the Oakland Athletics. Similar to this World Series, those Reds were heavy underdogs, too. And they swept the A’s.

After throwing 88 pitches in Game 1, Kluber only tossed 81 before departing Saturday. Should Trevor Bauer fail in Game 5 and the Cubs somehow win Game 6, Kluber should have plenty in the tank for Game 7.

Callaway said the 10 days Kluber missed in late September with a strained quadriceps might have been a blessing in disguise. Because with starters Carlos Carrasco (fractured hand) and Danny Salazar (elbow) knocked out of the rotation, the extra rest maybe gave Kluber additional fuel for the heavy load he’s been asked to carry this postseason.

“It wasn’t adjusting on the fly,” Callaway said. “He knew two or three weeks ago. When we lost those two starters, it was, Oh, crap! He’s going to have to carry a heavy load.”

Carry it he has, all the way to the front porch of ending baseball’s second-longest World Series drought. One more win, and they’re in.

All season long, Davis and Mike Napoli and the rest of them have had some fun with a favorite motivational saying. This spring, Davis said, when something stupid happened, “like maybe the Gatorade was in the wrong place,” Napoli quickly responded, “We can overcome this.”

It’s become something of a rallying cry for the Indians ever since. No matter how big or small the obstacle, serious or humorous, they’ll look at each other and say, “We can overcome this.”

You can bet they’ll utter it a few more times Sunday night. The Cubs and their swarm of fans are on notice; the franchise that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908, the one that’s lost each of the past seven Fall Classics in which it’s appeared, is one loss from another disappointment.

Kipnis said Saturday night that it will be the hardest win of all to attain.

We’ll see. Right now, against the Cubs and their measly .204 team batting average and .273 team on-base percentage, the Indians are making it look pretty easy.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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