CLEVELAND – The first pitch of a ballgame rarely has an impact on its final score.
Whether the opening delivery is a ball up in the zone or a called strike at the knees, a pitcher is primarily concerned with their approach to the at-bat rather than the defense behind him.
Saturday afternoon was an exception.
Corey Kluber delivered a 92.1-mph sinker right down the heart of the plate to Brian Dozier, a less than ideal location, even if it comes within minutes of the national anthem.
For a moment, it seemed like the 31-year-old right-hander was well on his way to a first-pitch out against one of the tougher hitters in manager Paul Molitor’s lineup. The groundball skipped over to second baseman Jason Kipnis at 95.7-mph, a sharply hit ball that happened to roll right into the Tribe’s defensive alignment.
The throw to first base was another story.
Kipnis fired an errant throw to Carlos Santana, lifting him off the bag in what shaped out to be his seventh error of the campaign. A crowd of 33,111 fans watched as Dozier dove headfirst in a startling turn of events.
“It’s a baseball play for an infielder,” said Kipnis. “It’s adding ten, fifteen feet to the throw, I guess that’s not too much.”
Dozier eventually came around to score, charging Kluber with an unearned run and putting Cleveland at a disadvantage in a tightly contested battle.
“It’s a shame because the way the first inning unfolded,” Francona said. “Instead of having the first pitch out of the game, which is about the best thing you could ever hope for, all of a sudden, he’s pitching out of trouble. He had a walk. We didn’t handle the first play. We threw a ball away. The runs are important, but almost as important the fact that it probably cost him an inning.”
The two-time All-Star is having his worst season defensively since 2014 with -3 defensive runs saved and a -2.6 ultimate zone rating, two advanced stats that account for a player’s arm and range in the field. His career-low .764 revised zone rating is also concerning given his poor positioning and footwork on the play.
“Sometimes we take grounders over there just to work on footwork,” said Kipnis. “It’s not like I haven’t done that throw before. It is what it is.”
Kipnis has landed on the disabled list twice for right shoulder inflammation during his career (August 2015 and April 2017), two stints that might have an impact on his accuracy and arm strength.
If this lingering soreness is not the case, then Kipnis will have to make an adjustment on the defensive side of the ball if he wants his Cy Young pitcher to earn a deserving victory.
“You’ve got to keep fighting through it and fighting through the frustration when things aren’t going your way,” Kipnis said. “Things happen. I thought Kluber obviously pitched well enough to win the game.”
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.