HOUSTON -- With the "opener" gambit now influencing postseason strategies in Oakland and Milwaukee, the pitching matchup for Game 1 of the American League Division Series between the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros represents a throwback in this era of bullpening.
The Indians and Astros will turn to tried-and-true aces aiming to gain an early edge in the series on Friday at Minute Maid Park. Right-handers Corey Kluber (20-7, 2.89 ERA) and Justin Verlander (16-9, 2.52 ERA) have combined for 16 200-inning and 13 200-strikeout seasons, 10 All-Star Game appearances, three Cy Young awards, and two ERA titles, with Verlander adding a Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player award, plus a pitching triple crown, to the mix.
If Verlander doesn't earn his second Cy Young award this season, he is assured of finishing in the top five in balloting for the sixth time. Kluber finished third in 2016, two seasons after winning his first Cy Young award and one year before claiming his second. By every definition, they are workhorses charged with setting the tone in a postseason series. That both have been here before enhances expectations of something riveting unfolding when they work in opposition.
"Well, as far as Klub goes, we love it," Indians manager Terry Francona said of relying upon a traditional ace. "I'm sure they feel the same way with Verlander. I think, as an organization or a team, you do what you think puts you in the best position. If that's to have an opener, OK. But I know how we feel with Kluber pitching, and it's good and he's earned that. Same with Verlander."
Verlander, having made 90.7 percent of his 419 regular-season starts for the Detroit Tigers, is intimately familiar with his former division rival. Cleveland is the only team from the American League Central against whom Verlander owns a losing record (20-24, 4.71 ERA over 52 starts).
Unlike Kluber, who finished 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA over two starts against the Astros this season, Verlander did not crossmatch against the Indians, making starts immediately prior to the series the teams contested in May. Verlander has tweaked his pitch usage since joining the Astros late last season and is confident those changes should mitigate any concerns over his spotty record.
"I've changed a lot. Their lineup has changed," said Verlander, 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA over five September starts. "It will be interesting to see what happens. I just am taking this, preparing for it as much as I can and know what to expect in a playoff atmosphere, know what to expect out of myself. When it comes down to it, I just need to go out there and execute pitches."
Kluber (4-2, 3.54 ERA) and Verlander (11-6, 3.07 ERA) have proven capable of executing in the postseason, reliability that undergirds the decisions to utilize both with stakes this high. In some corners, a steady stream of relievers might suffice. With Cleveland and Houston, tradition rules.
"Whether your personnel fits -- you can't have an overriding philosophy," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I love starters. Why? Because I've got good ones. I think that's the easiest way to fall in love with a rotation and have that mindset do I want my starters to go deep in the game.
"Yeah, they're good. If not, then I've got to have a contingency plan and it becomes a bullpen day very quickly if you fall behind or if the starter is not at his best."