CLEVELAND -- Heading into the 2019 season, many were projecting a breakout sophomore campaign for Shane Bieber, and the 24-year-old has done just about everything he can to live up to those expectations.
Bieber tossed 7 1/3 solid frames Friday night, allowing two runs on seven hits with seven strikeouts to help lead the Indians to a 5-2 victory over the Phillies at Progressive Field. The Tribe has now won five consecutive games, their longest win streak since the middle of July. Cleveland remains tied with the Rays for the final American League Wild Card spot.
“I thought he had better life on his fastball,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “That’s a pretty good lineup. There are some pretty good hitters over there. I thought he spun some breaking balls underneath their bats. The couple balls they hit, like the one [Brad] Miller hit, that ball was off the plate. That’s just a good piece of hitting. I thought [Bieber] was pretty [darn] good."
From pitching into the eighth inning in 25% of his starts this season to recording his 250th strikeout and 15th win of the year, Bieber has put together an attractive stat line that could draw a handful of American League Cy Young Award votes. With one more regular-season outing likely remaining for the right-hander, he’s already joined some decent company after recording his 250th strikeout in the fourth inning, fanning Rhys Hoskins.
He became just the fourth Indians pitcher with at least 250 strikeouts in a season at age 24 or younger, joining Sam McDowell (325 in 1965), Herb Score (263 in '56) and Bob Feller (260 in '41 and 261 in '40).
“He’s incredible, especially watching him from the outfield,” said Oscar Mercado, who went 2-for-4 with two RBIs. “It’s awesome to watch. He knows himself so much as a pitcher and he executes tremendously. He knows exactly what he’s doing. There’s not a negative thing to say about him. He’s ready to compete every time, he gives us an opportunity to win every time he’s out there and it’s awesome playing behind him.”
Despite the hurdles the rotation has had to overcome this season, Cleveland's starters have kept the Tribe in the playoff hunt all season and has buckled down even more as the importance of each game increases. Since Aug. 1, the Indians' starting rotation has posted a 2.91 ERA and Bieber -- the only hurler in the club’s original starting five this season to make all of his starts for the Tribe -- has a 2.90 ERA in that span.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever thought anything different like ... it never went through my mind,” Francona said, when asked about watching a 24-year-old embrace the challenge of pitching in big games. “That’s a big compliment. Just expect him to be Bieber. Whether it’s Spring Training or with 10 days to go in the season, never even gave it a thought.”
With only eight games remaining in the regular season, Francona knows it’s inevitable that his players and pitchers will start to feel fatigued.
“Major League innings are different,” Francona said. “It’s more stress. It is different. I think that’s where the mental part comes in. You can either beat yourself up or you can say, ‘I’ll figure it out.’ I think we always feel with [Bieber], he’s going to figure it out.”
But no matter how tired a player may feel at this point in the regular season, with the Indians in a dead heat with the Rays, the team begins to run on adrenaline.
“It's awesome,” Bieber said. “This is what we come to the ballpark and do. This is what we come and play for. It's a special time of year. I know every single one of these guys is extremely excited to be in the position we're in and to be in this race and to be playing for something meaningful. It kind of helps bring that organic energy each and every day. It's something we come here every day excited about.”