Historically, the Cleveland Indians do not do well in do-or-die games. That's not being negative, it's just a fact.
Everyone remembers the World Series losses of 1997 and 2016, but when you throw in the ALDS defeats of 1999 and 2001 and the ALCS of 2007, a real trend starts to emerge. That's what makes Wednesday's ALDS Game 5 against the New York Yankees so nerve-wracking for Tribe fans, with many seeing defeat as only inevitable.
Fortunately, the Indians have their ace in the hole, with Corey Kluber scheduled to start against former Cleveland pitcher CC Sabathia. To win a game like this, a team more often that not needs strong pitching. Despite Kluber's rough outing in Game 2, there's no one Tribe fans would rather have on the mound.
If Kluber is to win this game, however, he is going to have to reach back and find something more than just his already electric stuff, just as two former Indians pitchers did in elimination games before him: Gene Bearden and Jaret Wright. Only twice in franchise history has the Tribe managed to come out on top in a winner-take-all game, and on both occasions rookie starting pitchers were able to deliver clutch performances.
The first came instance in 1948, with the Indians and the Boston Red Sox facing off in a one-game playoff for the American League pennant. Although future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon was rested and ready, Tribe player-manager Lou Boudreau chose to start the rookie Bearden on just one day's rest (something that would be unheard of today).
How did Bearden respond? By going the distance at Fenway Park, giving up just 1 earned run while striking out six on the way to an 8-3 Cleveland victory. Bearden was carried off the field in triumph, his performance still remembered as arguably the greatest in Indians history.
Fast-forward to 1997, as the Tribe took on the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS. Like Boudreau 49 years before him, manager Mike Hargrove went with his own rookie sensation, handing the ball to Jaret Wright on just three days rest. But unlike Bearden, whose faced the lunderwhelming Denny Galehouse of Boston, Wright would have to match up with Andy Pettitte, who would go on to win 256 games during his career.
While Wright didn't pitch a complete game, he certainly did enough, allowing 2 earned runs over 5.1 innings as the Tribe stunned the Yanks 4-3. The victory also earned Wright the manager's trust, as Hargrove once again started the rookie on short rest in Game 7 of the World Series, where he pitched well despite the Indians eventually losing.
Bearden would also earn the save in the Tribe's World Series-clinching victory, and Wright may well have been the Fall Classic's MVP in 1997 had the Marlins not come back. While both Bearden and Wright would flame out after their stellar rookie campaigns, but forever endeared themselves to Indians fans with their playoff heroics.
Which brings us back to Corey Kluber: He has already accomplished more in his career than Bearden and Wright ever did, and even has a fine postseason track record of his own. Yet while he may have just been out of gas, the pain of last year's World Series Game 7 hangs like a cloud over Kluber and the team, with the ace getting lit up for 4 runs in just 4 innings.
While a win in the ALDS may not fully erase the memory of losing to the Cubs, it does present an opportunity for the Indians to finally win a sudden-death game and erase that stigma for good. For that to happen, Corey Kluber will have to prove his worth as a big time pitcher. If Gene Bearden and Jaret Wright could do it, surely he can too.