COLUMBUS — The most important thing from Corey Kluber’s rehab start Thursday afternoon was a four-letter word.
It wasn’t the two solo home runs the Cleveland Indians right-hander allowed to Pawtucket during his three-inning effort for the Clippers at Huntington Park, and it wasn’t his fastball topping out at 90 miles per hour.
It was the word he used when asked to describe how he felt in his first outing since suffering a non-displaced fracture of his right ulnar bone when he was struck by a line drive in a May 1 game against Miami.
“Good,” Kluber told reporters as the game progressed outside. “I haven’t run into anything that’s felt out of the ordinary yet, and today was more of the same so that’s encouraging.”
The start was the latest milestone in Kluber’s lengthy recovery from a freak injury that came off the bat of Marlins’ right fielder Brian Anderson on the 57th pitch of the game. That day, Kluber swiped at the ball with his glove as he headed toward the first-base line and eventually to the dugout.
Since then, it’s been a lot of conditioning and waiting for the two-time Cy Young winner.
“There’s obviously a progression that you have to go through when you’ve been down for a while and this is another step in this progression, but the last step is getting in these games and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s fun to get out there and just compete regardless of whether it’s a rehab start or a real game. Hopefully I can continue to fine-tune things.”
A clean-shaven Kluber emerged from the first-base dugout 36 minutes before the scheduled first pitch and headed to right field with starting catcher Dioner Navarro for some long-toss warming up.
With John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” playing over the speakers and pitching coach Rigo Beltran looking on, Kluber finished up by tossing a ball to a kid along the railing and heading to the bullpen along the first-base line.
There, with fans filling the first two rows taking photos and selfies, Kluber threw 41 warm-up pitches to Navarro. Once complete, he handed the ball to another young fan in the front row and headed to the dugout to an ovation from those congregated nearby. He received another warm round of applause when announced in the starting lineup and was the first Clippers player to take the field.
His first pitch, delivered at 12:05 p.m. to Pawtucket center fielder Gorkys Hernandez, was clocked at 88 mph and broke Hernandez’s bat. Two batters later, left fielder Chris Owings blasted a 1-and-0 pitch to the top of the grassy lawn in left-center field. In the second inning, Kluber watched designated hitter Bobby Dalbec blast a solo home run over the netting in right field and out of the ballpark, where a crowd lining the fence chased it across the street.
Kluber threw 41 pitches, 24 for strikes, allowing the two runs and striking out two. The plan had been for him to throw 50 to 55 pitches, he said, but he was removed from the game after the third inning and finished his work in the indoor bullpen. He reported no limitations on what pitches he could throw.
“Early on, (I was) maybe just not quite aggressive enough, but once I got more comfortable out there I started to feel a little better,” Kluber said. “I started to feel like my stuff got a little better, a little sharper so I’ll try to build on that next time.”
When and where the next time will be remains a secret. Before the game was over, Kluber was scheduled to be headed back to Cleveland, and he will fly from there Friday to rejoin the Indians for a pivotal series at Minnesota.
“Each start you’ve got to take it by itself and try to separate them from each other so that you can honestly evaluate it and see how I feel, how I felt I executed pitches, that kind of thing,” Kluber said. “Then you discuss it with people back in Cleveland and move onto the next step, whatever it is.”