Believeland, indeed: Indians take huge step toward World Series conquest

CLEVELAND — OK, maybe it really is time to believe.

Maybe the city of Cleveland, which has experienced so much heartache, with generations watching the failures of their sports franchises, can, dare we say, be actually optimistic.

The Cleveland Indians, the other team in the World Series stricken by a historic drought, took one giant step toward ending that Tuesday night with a convincing 6-0 over the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the World Series at Progressive Field.

It was the Indians’ first World Series shutout since they last won the World Series in 1948, and their fourth of this magical postseason.

The Indians have suddenly found themselves a modern-day Bob Feller, a flashy Lew Boudreau, a slugging Sandy Alomar and a closing bullpen duo not featuring Jose Mesa.

Suddenly, it’s cool to be a Tribe fan - even with LeBron James and his aide-de-camps celebrating an NBA title next door.

The Cavaliers received their their NBA championship rings just an hour before Indians ace Corey Kluber threw his first pitch, and if Kluber keeps pitching like this, the Cavs may be the ones watching the downtown parade this time.

“We expect a shutout from him every time,’’ said Indians catcher Roberto Perez. “I don’t know where we’d be without him.’’

Says Kluber: “I don’t know where we’d be without Roberto.’’

While the Indians, behind starter Kluber’s six shutout innings, struck out 15 this night, tied for the second-highest total in World Series history, it was Perez who became the first Indians player to hit two World Series homers.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,’’ Perez said. “I’ve never had a night like this.’’

While Kluber set a World Series record with eight strikeouts in the first three innings, it was Perez who became the first hitter to hit two home runs from the ninth spot in World Series history.

While Kluber joined Bob Gibson of the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals and Allie Reynolds of 1948 New York Yankees as the only World Series pitchers strike out at least nine batters without giving up a run, Perez joined Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Gene Tenace as the only catchers to have two homers in a World Series game.

While Perez raved about his pitching staff that has dominated everyone in their wake this entire postseason, going 8-1 with a 1.58 ERA, striking out 96 batters in 80 innings, the pitching staff has wildly praised Perez for making it happen.

It’s really little surprise that Kluber, who could win his second Cy Young award in three years, is turning this postseason into his own video game.

The stunner is that the man operating the joy stick is the one making the difference.

Yes, Roberto Perez, the same guy who hit .185 with a .285 on-base percentage and .294 slugging percentage this season, hitting three home runs the entire season.

He now has three homers just this postseason, two in four innings this night, including a three-run shot in the eighth.

“It gives me goosebumps,’’ says Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, who had three hits. “It gets me going because I know how hard he works, day in and day out, what he’s doing for Puerto Rico. He’s amazing to watch.’’

Oh, and what he’s doing for the Indians is trying to carry them where they haven’t gone in 68 years, losing just one postseason game this year.

“What he’s doing,’’ Cleveland backup catcher Chris Gimenez says, “has made all of the difference in the world for us. We’re not here without him.’’

And, to think, just three months ago, Perez wondered if he’d still have a job.

The Indians, with catcher Yan Gomes hurt, and Perez and Gimenez struggling offensively, knew they had a huge hole. They searched for a catcher. And found their man.

They worked out a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for All-Star Jonathan Lucroy, were ready to seal the deal, and made a phone call to Lucroy to seek approval, since Cleveland was on his no-trade list. Lucroy, who’s a free agent after 2017, asked their plans for him next year. They told him he would be an everyday catcher, but also play first base and DH. Lucroy balked, believing it would diminish his free agent value.

The deal was voided. Perez had new life.

“I don’t blame them,’’ Perez said. “I just had [thumb] surgery back then. I understood why he was trying to do, and I don’t blame them. I’m just glad I got the opportunity to show the world, and people, that I can do the job.’’

Perez and Gimenez, figuring one of them would be gone for sure when Lucroy arrived, huddled together for a pep talk.

“We sat down and said, “This is going to be on us to get us there.’ Well, he took the onus on himself that he was the one who was going to get us there.

“Here we are, he just hit two home runs in the World Series, man. I can’t even imagine hitting one. Or getting a hit. It’s so awesome to see.’’

Says Cleveland center fielder Rajai Davis: “I think it was just a tip of the iceberg what we’re really capable of doing offensively with the way we hit. And when your No. 9 hitter is hitting two home runs, that’s kind of scary.

“Can you imagine this offense if our No. 9 hitter keeps hitting home runs. Ooh, look out.’’

Really, the way Kluber and the pitching staff see it, they don’t even need him to get a hit. He gets so many rave reviews with his game-calling and pitch-framing, they believe that’s worth a couple of runs a game.

“He makes those 50-50 balls look so good that in an umpire’s eyes, that’s a strike," says Gimenez. "That’s huge for us.’’

Certainly, Kluber couldn’t stop praising Perez, saying he certainly wouldn’t be 3-1 with a 0.74 ERA, striking out 28 batters in 24 innings this postseason, without him.

“He did an unbelievable job,’’ Kluber said. “It's almost like he knew what they were looking for. He had them off-balance for the majority of the night. Really the only time that they got hits was really when I didn't execute a pitch.’’

Then again, the way Kluber is pitching, he has a way of making every catcher look like Bench.

“Phenomenal, incredible, whatever superlative you can come up with,’’ said Andrew Miller, who relieved Kluber in the seventh inning, and pitched two scoreless innings before turning it over to closer Cody Allen. “We see it all the time. It’s special. I know he’s in Cleveland and it’s not the spotlight of big markets, but he’s as good as they come.

“Right now, he’s as good a pitcher as there is in baseball.

“We want him on the mound every chance we can get.’’

That could be in Game 4. And again in Game 7. Kluber threw just 88 pitches, and says he’d be just fine on short rest.

"I don't think you'd find anybody who would turn down a chance to go out there and pitch right now," he says.

The Cavs have already informed the Indians they are coming to Game 2 tonight, which starts an hour earlier (7:08 ET, Fox) because of the threat of late rain. They won’t be able to see Kluber, but if they hang around long enough, they’ll get to see him plenty more before this World Series ends.

“We need him,’’ says Cleveland manager Terry Francona, the first manager to win each of his first nine World Series games, “and we’re going to need him more.

“The needle on the gas tank doesn't point toward empty.’’

Not in the new Cleveland. Now, it all looks half-full, and rising steadily.

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