CLEVELAND – A pivotal first inning proved to be the difference for the Cleveland Indians offense.
Facing Lance McCullers Jr., one of the better strikeout pitchers in the MLB with 11.63 K/9 entering play, the Tribe was able to take advantage of four location mistakes in the first inning, all of which were knuckle-curves out over the middle of the plate…
Carlos Santana (2-1 count, knuckle-curve pitch)
Result: Leadoff single to center field
Distance: 268 feet
Pitch Velocity: 83.7-mph
Exit Velocity: 92.3-mph
Michael Brantley (0-2 count, knuckle-curve pitch)
Result: RBI double (barreled ball) to center field
Distance: 381 feet
Pitch Velocity: 85.2-mph
Exit Velocity: 100.1-mph
Edwin Encarnacion (1-1 count, knuckle-curve pitch)
Result: Sacrifice fly to right field
Distance: 319 feet
Exit Velocity: 92.1-mph
Jason Kipnis (1-2 count, knuckle-curve pitch)
Result: Single to left field
Distance: 150 feet
Pitch Velocity: 84.8-mph
Exit Velocity: 55-mph
The outburst did not expand beyond three runs as Lonnie Chisenhall grounded into a 4-6-3 double play to retire the side, but the home nine was able to claim an early 3-0 advantage, a nice cushion for Trevor Bauer and the pitching staff.
"He really went to that breaking ball. It’s a good one. It’s one of the better ones," said manager Terry Francona of McCuller's arsenal of pitches. "I don’t know about waiting on it. I think you’re trying to get in a hitter’s count and get a good pitch to hit.”
After McCullers settled in to retire nine of the next 11 hitters he faced between the second and fifth innings, he surrendered an additional two runs on knuckle-curves up in the zone to Francisco Lindor (double) and Brantley (two-run single) in the fifth frame.
"It's an approach that you want to take," Brantley said of hitting the off-speed the other way. "I mean, he has a very good breaking ball, like you said. Its a plus breaking ball, its one of the best breaking balls you're going to see all year. You're just trying to stay on it. You can roll them over with the best of them, especially when they are that good, so if you can stay on it and try to drive it the other way, you're going to have better success."
Francisco Lindor (0-1 count, knuckle-curve pitch)
Result: Double to left field
Distance: 22 feet
Pitch Velocity: 86-mph
Exit Velocity: 102.9-mph
Michael Brantley (2-1 count, knuckle-curve pitch)
Result: Two-run single to left field
Distance: 64 feet
Pitch Velocity: 87-mph
Exit Velocity: 101.9-mph
McCullers throws the knuckle-curve more than any other pitch as shown by his career-high 54.5% usage rate through his previous 24 innings (four starts) in 2017. In addition, the pitch is registering an average of 85.5-mph, 0.8-mph above his career average of 84.7-mph.
Analytics aside, the damage had been dealt to McCullers – 5 IP, 7 H, 5 R/ER, 3 BB, 5 K – an insurmountable lead that would last for three hours and 10 minutes of the contest.