CLEVELAND – The Klubot smiled Tuesday. Something went haywire in its code. The Klubot is not supposed to smile. Sentience is not written into its program. Even on a night like this, when the city of Cleveland was a bubbling cauldron of good vibes, of positivity in a place defined by half a century of sporting pessimism, the Klubot was built to be immune to it all, to focus every micron of its energy inward and not allow its human shell to reflect its surroundings. Smiles are for people. Emotions are for mortals. The Klubot is a machine created to pitch.
Almost nobody saw it, either. The Klubot’s alter ego, Corey Kluber, a 30-year-old right-hander for the Cleveland Indians, hides its teeth about as well as it does its pitches from the suckers at the plate tasked with hitting them. On this night, in Game 1 of the most anticipated World Series in years, it was the Chicago Cubs, and they joined the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays on the list of those devastated by running two-seamers and cutting fastballs and darting curveballs, an array dispatched in robotic fashion.
In the top of the seventh inning, as Indians manager Terry Francona walked toward the mound to send the Klubot back to its charging pod, there it was. The corners of its lips started to spread. The CPU was on the fritz. It was happening. It was real. The Indians held a lead, one they would double in a 6-0 victory in front of 38,091 at Progressive Field enlivened not just from what unfolded in front of them but what unfurled across the street at Quicken Loans Arena: a banner celebrating the Cavaliers’ NBA championship in the spring. Cleveland – battered, beaten, bullied Cleveland – was the center of the sporting universe, and in the middle of the diamond was a pitcher so impassive it had gained the reputation as an automaton, and here it was, sneaking an ever-so-slight grin, the likes of which its Indians teammates couldn’t remember having seen.
“Never,” Indians first baseman Mike Napoli said. “Never.”
“I don’t know,” shortstop Francisco Lindor offered.
“During the game?” outfielder Rajai Davis mused. “It’s like more of a smirk. It’s been a while, though.”
“On a baseball field?” closer Cody Allen said. “Maybe.”
There was no maybe about this. It was real, and it was spectacular. Indians catcher Roberto Perez – the No. 9 hitter who whacked a pair of home runs, the first Cleveland player ever to do so in a World Series game, and the first backstop in 30 years to hit two in a game – said something to Kluber, and nothing could stifle the giggle, which ceded to a real smile.
“I’m sure it happens more often than not,” Kluber said. “Maybe the camera doesn’t catch it.”
Blame the technology. Good head fake, Klubot. Really, its creators ought understand that as inherently emotional as its job can be – the pitch-by-pitch battles, the mind games of what to throw, the excitement of success and pain of failure – showing something other than pursed lips and stolid countenance is OK. Especially in a game of this magnitude.
It wasn’t just the 176 combined years of championship-less baseball played by the two teams. No, that’s history. The Klubot’s processor knows it but knows, too, that it’s immaterial to today. Because today is Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the first inning, going down with a pair of strikeouts and a pop out. Today is Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Chris Coghlan wearing Ks in the second inning and Addison Russell, Fowler and Bryant doing the same in the third. It’s eight punchouts in the first three innings, which wasn’t just a World Series record over that short bit of time but an Indians record for an entire World Series game.
Then it’s three more innings, not as memorable, every bit as effective, with pop-ups and lazy fly balls and, sure, another strikeout for good measure. By the time the seventh inning rolled around and Ben Zobrist whacked a single to left field, the Klubot was done, because the Indians would need it again in four days, and 88 pitches was plenty to ensure it recovered in time for Game 4.
A mere superhuman, Indians reliever Andrew Miller, arrived and loaded the bases promptly, threatening to ruin Cleveland’s night. Then he induced a fly ball, struck out Russell and David Ross, and preserved the Klubot’s near-pristine line: six innings, four hits, no runs, no walks and nine strikeouts. Its ERA this postseason dipped to 0.74. Its strikeout rate jumped to 10.8 per nine innings. Its duty, for now, was fulfilled, at least until Game 4 and the potential Game 7.
“Here late into October,” Francona said, “and the needle on the gas tank doesn’t point towards empty.”
Well, of course it doesn’t. That’s the beauty of sending an android to play a man’s game. The planet is not yet devoid of the resources needed to fuel it. The execution of pitches with incomprehensible movement – in particular the two-seam fastball it threw 30 times, mostly off the outside edge to right-handed hitters, only to see it dart back over the plate – is no longer the domain of the theoretical.
“He gets such great movement both directions with his cutter and his comebacker,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He was hitting his edges. He pitched well.”
He? His? How dare thee blaspheme! Humanize the Klubot all you want. The punishment will be more sinkers and cutters.
Which, of course, is fine by the Indians. They have come to terms with their roster of 24 men and one not-man. In pitching-staff meetings throughout the playoffs, Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway tries to emphasize approach over the individual weaknesses of hitters. He wants pitchers to focus on what’s going to happen next, not what happened already. The archetype is in the room with them, nodding along, because its systems analysts believe that’s what humans do when they agree.
“I don’t think he’s going to let anything rattle him or show any kind of emotion,” Callaway said.
This is the Klubot the Indians know and love. Not one that smiles, even after Miller escaped another jam in the eighth inning, his 46th pitch of the night striking out Ross to end a first-and-third threat and setting the stage for Perez’s three-run shot in the bottom of the inning. A close game morphed into as close to a sure thing as possible, with Cody Allen coming on for a scoreless ninth to finish off the Cubs’ third shutout this postseason and extend his and Miller’s combined postseason scoreless streak to 22 1/3 innings.
All the while, the Klubot ruminated as best its engine would let it, looking back on its performance this postseason and agreeing that, yes, it is quite impressive under the circumstances, even if it was fabricated to be a 6-foot-4, 215-pound apparatus of pitching excellence.
“Not that there is less importance on a regular season-game,” it said, “but it’s almost like you have that extra level of intensity or focus and stuff that it’s not really something you can replicate.”
There is but one model of the Klubot, and, yes, it’s one of a kind, one the Indians are glad they wheedled out of the San Diego Padres in a 2010 trade and stuck with through Version 1.0. The next one struggled in the major leagues in 2011 and 2012, before some tinkering unleashed what we see now: the Klubot, fully realized.
And here stand the Indians, happy to ride it for all it’s worth, so happy that even when something is a bit off, and it actually smiles, they don’t mind one bit.