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On Corey Kluber’s no-hit dominance and a long-awaited dream come true

Corey Kluber let me cross off a bucket list item.

MLB: New York Yankees at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

My first article for Pinstripe Alley was a game recap. I’ve religiously posted about at least one game per week for five seasons. I’ve built spreadsheets to track how every PSA blogger performs in games they recap — wins, losses, run differential, projected, and simulated results. Recaps are at the heart of what we do on this blog, and above all else, I’ve wanted to cover a no-hitter. I am certainly not a professional, but tonight I got to cross off something that’s been on my professional bucket list since I was 21.

When I first joined the staff, Luis Severino was about to embark on a Cy Young finalist season. He has classic no-hitter stuff — triple-digits fastball and a wipeout slider. Masahiro Tanaka came somewhat close a couple of times, including a complete game shutout of the Red Sox. Current ace Gerrit Cole is probably the guy who you would most expect to throw a no-hitter. Instead, the guy I got to cover is a 35-year-old who threw all of one inning last year.

Corey Kluber, in the building where his career perhaps came closest to its end, baffled the Texas Rangers over nine innings in a 2-0 victory. He never threw harder than 92.5 mph, a speed that some guys in 2021 will average on their sliders. The only blemish was a walk to Charlie Culberson in the third inning. A Yankee defense that has been derided since Opening Day was solid behind him. It was the 12th no-hitter in franchise history and the first since David Cone’s perfecto in 1999.

It’s funny how we consume no-hitters, as baseball fans. In the first inning, Kluber worked a perfect, 12-pitch frame. No one thought anything of it. In fact, given that the Yankees got two men aboard in the top of the first, only to have a potential big inning snuffed out by a double play and questionable checked swing call, you might not have paid much attention to Kluber’s first inning. Ditto his eight-pitch second.

Then, by the time the lineup turns over for the first time and the Yankees start to add some baserunners, you look at the box score and still see that smooth, black zero. But you’re a seasoned baseball fan, and the pitcher is 35 damn years old. There’s nothing worth looking into here ... and yet:

I do believe that some guys, on some nights, just have It. PSA readers know that I’m an analytically driven guy, perhaps to a fault. I prefer Baseball Savant to my grandfather’s knee, I believe in the things that metrics tell me are happening. There really isn’t a metric for It. Corey Kluber was pitching really well, but he’s had a good season thus far and a solid outing was far from surprising (and what a contrast to the first half of April, when he could barely reach the fifth). Staring at that smooth black zero though, you realize that it’s more than Kluber’s customary strong start. He had It.

Nothing was left over the plate. I had Peter pull and annotate the Kluberball — that nebulous, often definition-defying breaking ball that, when Corey’s on, is as devastating a pitch as there is in baseball. This is how much Kluber was in complete control, courtesy of Peter:

What do you see, one mistake? One pitch that got away from Kluber all night; just one chance for the Rangers to completely change the narrative of the game. Everything else is on the black, or breaking so hard that hitters can’t discern between the pitch on the black and the pitch five inches outside. Corey made his Kluberball dance tonight, getting seven whiffs and 12 (!) called strikes with the pitch. You almost feel sorry for the Rangers lineup. Almost.

As for Kluber, what do you feel for a guy who went from the highest highs of the sport, to the point where you couldn’t blame him for walking away? This was a man who in 2016, nearly carried Cleveland on his back to its first World Series title in 68 years. Then in 2019, he broke his arm on a comebacker on May 1st. He never pitched for Cleveland again.

In December 2019, Kluber was dealt away from the organization that made him the force that he was. Sure, he was drafted by the Padres, but he debuted in Cleveland, won Cy Youngs in Cleveland, and came just shy of delivering them a championship. Now, they were throwing him away. Instead of immediately proving them wrong in a chaotic year for all of us, he threw just one inning for his new team, the Rangers. After tearing his shoulder, the very team he would stymie in 2021 declined his $18 million option, and Kluber faced a justifiably uncertain free agent market.

The Yankees, for their money, didn’t just take a chance on Kluber. They got into a legitimate bidding war for his services, including staving off the rival Red Sox. What a different narrative this season might have taken if Kluber was playing in Fenway every fifth day, but the interest was mutual and he reportedly turned down more money to come to a team he felt a better connection with, thanks in part to his pal, Yankees trainer Eric Cressey.

All of that came to a head on Wednesday night in Texas, on the same mound where his 2020 abruptly ended. By the fifth inning, it was clear Kluber had It. Whether that meant a no-hitter or simply a sterling start, we didn’t really know until about the seventh. The Yankees are notoriously conservative in their approach — they have a gameplan and they stick to it. Kluber’s performance flipped the tables, and the Yankees, in a very close game, rode his right arm to the end.

It felt like a no-hitter once the seventh rolled around. Kluber struck out Nick Solak on five pitches — cutter up, changeup in, and then curveball, changeup, curveball progressively further down and further in. The thought had already crept into my mind, but I decided to screenshot a certain PSA member’s tweet, justttttt in case:

Congrats, LTL.

By the eighth, it was clear that the Yankees’ coaching staff asn’t wgoing to interfere in this game. Sure, Kluber had struck out nine, but he had retired 11 batters on 3 pitches or fewer, preserving his pitch count, working effectively, and completely avoiding any high-stress pitches. I’m a firm believer than 100 low-stress pitches are easier to manage than 80 pitches with traffic all night, and at least tonight, the Yankee brain trust agreed with me. The only reliever to get up in the entire game was Aroldis Chapman in the ninth, and that was simply as an insurance policy against a home run making it a one-run lead.

Not that the insurance was needed. Kluber did toy with us a bit, recording two tough outs that lesser defensive players might have let squeak through — especially one in-between hop fielded cleanly by DJ LeMahieu. That Tyler Wade was the right fielder, coming in to replace an injured Ryan LaMarre, and Miguel Andújar, a player without a position, was in left, only added to the drama.

And then, the pressure valve released:

There’s still a lot of baseball left in this season. I’ll be let down if the Yankees are bounced from the playoffs again. I’ll still be ticked off if they lose their first series to the Red Sox. But 2021 is already a special year for someone who has spent five seasons pining to get this chance. A Yankee threw a no-hitter, and I was the one who got to write about it.

Corey Kluber, of course, handled this with trademark dash, emotion and flamboyance:

The Yankees have another game on Thursday — an afternoon one, in fact, so who knows the state of the team a mere 15 hours after what was probably a raucous celebration? The beauty of baseball is that you play every single day, so no matter how good or how bad yesterday was, you must put it behind you and put up a fight today. With all that said ... you can bet that I’ll be thinking about tonight’s start for a while.

Thanks, Corey.