KANSAS CITY -- To some, having a starter come back at the very end of the season to pitch just six innings before the offseason may not seem beneficial, but to Shane Bieber, it was essential.
Bieber came off the injured list last week to work three perfect frames against the White Sox before getting one more chance to toe the rubber in Thursday’s 6-1 win by the Indians over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. This time, he threw more pitches -- 50 to be exact -- than his last outing (34), but was still limited to just three frames, allowing one run on four hits.
"I think he needed this going into the offseason," Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale said. "When you’re talking about the effect he has on this team moving forward and the things he’s accomplished, I think it says something. It kind of sets a standard."
The right-hander hoped to experience the feeling of being on the rubber at least one more time in 2021 before beginning a long offseason that would mirror the monotony of his rehab progression. Bieber wanted competition. It may not have been much, but it was enough for the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner to get the taste of being Cleveland’s ace once again. Over his two starts, he’s allowed one run in six innings with no walks and four strikeouts.
"Throughout this whole process, that’s kind of the end goal, to try and be as persistent and resilient as possible," Bieber said, "and go out there and do what I love to do and ultimately what I’m paid to do. It was nice to get back out there for a couple of starts at the end of the year."
After Bieber cruised through his outing at Progressive Field against the White Sox, it may have been good for him to be tested in his second start, although he noted he would’ve preferred to be as dominant as he was last Friday. But Bieber got to experience high-leverage situations again, navigating traffic on base and being forced to escape jams in the limited time he had on the rubber without his sharpest fastball command.
"I thought that he made some pitches with his secondary pitches down in the zone," Hale said. "That’s what he’s capable of doing when one pitch is maybe not the command that he wants, he went to another one to get outs. ... I’m really happy [how] he came out. He probably wanted to do better with his fastball command, but looking at the other things he had done well, I’m pretty happy."
The hope is that Bieber’s brief appearances will help him head into the winter in a better headspace than if he had been sidelined for the rest of the season after suffering a right shoulder strain on June 13. And judging by these two late-season performances, it seems to have been the right move.
Now, the Indians will use the last few days of the season to determine what the next steps for Bieber will be as he heads home for the winter. For now, he’s unsure of how his progression will go and if this offseason will resemble the routines he’s had over the last few as he attempts to keep his right shoulder as healthy as possible.
But the goal for the end of this year was to prove to himself and his teammates that he'll bounce back in 2022 and he can be the same Bieber they’ve watched over the last three seasons. And it only took him six innings to prove it.
"I feel like if anything, tonight I felt good, I felt really healthy," Bieber said. "If anything, tonight made me more hungry to continue to get back to where I want to be. And I’m not gonna be too hard on myself in terms of pitch execution and all of that, because I know I’m behind the eight ball in terms of timing and everything. But like I said, it’s just nice to get out there, feel the competition and ultimately help the team get a win."