‘You don’t lose your fondness for guys’

Three Cy Young Awards. Two familiar windups. One ace that led Cleveland to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016, and another that hopes to do that and more in October.

Tuesday’s matchup featured the two best pitchers to don a Cleveland uniform in the 21st century, Corey Kluber and Shane Bieber. Kluber, with the Tampa Bay Rays, brought his familiar delivery, though in an unfamiliar uniform. Perhaps it was fitting, in a way, for Kluber to be on the mound in the first game at Progressive Field after Cleveland secured its first division title since 2018, when he still led the rotation.

“Just because guys change uniforms doesn’t mean you lose the fondness you had for them,” manager Terry Francona said. “We don’t want him to beat us tonight, or any time he faces us but that doesn’t take away how special he was and is. When we were down in Tampa he came over just to pop his head in and say hello. You don’t spend that much time with guys like that and go through what we did without getting really fond of people.”

In that 2016 run to the World Series, Kluber played a major role in leading a depleted pitching staff, shouldering the load and posting a 1.83 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 34⅓ innings, 15 more innings than any other Cleveland pitcher that postseason. Kluber also started Game 7 on short rest at a time in which Cleveland essentially ran out of pitching following a lengthy run through the playoffs and multiple injuries.

“I just thought he typified the idea of, he gave more than he probably had,” Francona said. “I know it’s an impossibility. But you’re pitching that deep into the season, it’s almost November. Maybe it was, I don’t know. He pitched a lot and he was willing to try. It didn’t end the way we wanted to, but it took away none of the appreciation I had for those guys and what they tried to do.”

In Tuesday’s game, Kluber (three earned runs, four innings) was outlasted by Bieber (four earned runs, six innings), though the Rays went on to win the game 6-5. The Rays are vying for a wild-card spot and could end up being the Guardians’ opponent in the Wild Card Series, a best-of-three series in which all three games, if needed, will be held at Progressive Field.

If the Guardians and Rays do meet in the postseason, it will be a matchup between two close friends as managers who were formerly on the same staff, Francona and Rays manager Kevin Cash. The two engaged in a prank war for years after Cash was hired by the Rays. The Guardians and Rays playing this week adds a layer of intrigue considering their possible matchup in the postseason.

“I’m not going to ask Cashie to give me his secrets. I could. Who knows, he might give it up,” Francona said with a laugh. “If that comes to fruition, that’s hard. He’s one of the most special people in my life, and they’re either going to be happy or we are. That’s hard. There’s no getting around it. When it’s all said and done, whenever it ends, whether we play them or not, I’m really proud of him. And he knows that. But it’s hard when you care that much about people and then you’re kind of fighting beat their brains out.”

Ryan Lewis can be reached at [email protected]. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis. Michael Beaven contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Guardians welcome back Corey Kluber to face Shane Bieber