Bieber, Cleveland's bats fall flat in finale

May 17th, 2021

Cleveland only needs one thing to have success: At least four runs on the scoreboard. But clearly, that’s much easier said than done.

Sure, the team needs solid pitching, a strong bullpen and quality defense, but the winning formula Cleveland has followed all season long is four-plus runs leads to victories. And because the team only plated two in the series finale against the Mariners, the Indians dropped their third game of the four-game set, 3-2, at T-Mobile Park, worsening their record to 3-16 when scoring three runs or fewer.

“That one’s on me,” Cleveland starter said. “It’s frustrating not doing what I know I can do and what I set out to do, but it is what it is, and I got to focus on the next one.”

An ace will always take the blame, and his start was the worst we’ve seen from him all season. But what happens when Cleveland scores more than three runs? The club has gone 18-1 in those games this season. It’s a trend that Bieber has become all too familiar with over the last few years. In every game Bieber has started in his career, the Indians are 38-7 when they score at least four runs. But in 28 of his 73 starts, the team hasn’t been able to score at least four. And since the start of 2019, Bieber’s ranked 63rd of 72 MLB pitchers with at least 40 starts in run support entering his start on Sunday.

The story was the same against the Mariners.

Bieber has been one of the main reasons Cleveland has been able to be successful over the last two years despite inconsistent offense. But when he turned in his shortest outing since June 9, 2019, the bats weren’t there to pick him up. Bieber permitted three runs on five hits with four walks and seven strikeouts -- snapping his streak of 20 consecutive starts with at least eight punchouts -- in 4 2/3 innings, while Cleveland’s offense plated two runs on a groundout and an error, going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

“Some of it's youth,” manager Terry Francona said, when asked about the team’s difficulties with situational hitting. “We're trying to hit too many pitches. Sometimes you've got to have a plan and stick to it. You can't hit everything.”

It makes sense that the more runs a team scores, the more likely it is to win. However, the 18-1 record when scoring at least four runs proves that the team has the pitching staff, specifically the bullpen, to contend.

The Indians started their recent hot streak on April 25, going 13-5 over their next 18 games entering Sunday. Although the rotation has been solid so far, it’s still not as dominant as the club expected entering the season. During that 18-game stretch, the starters combined for a 4.24 ERA, while the bullpen was stellar with a 2.56 ERA. That pattern repeated itself again when Phil Maton bailed Bieber out of trouble and the bullpen put together 3 1/3 scoreless frames to keep Cleveland in the game.

“It’s kind of been the theme of the last few outings,” Bieber said. “I haven’t been super sharp like the beginning of the year. … But, objectively, the bullpen did a phenomenal job of saving me there in that fifth inning -- Phil did -- and keeping the game close the entire game, and we almost scratched one out. So, as a team, I thought it was a well-fought game.”

José Ramírez has done everything he can to help bring consistency to the lineup, but he needs more help. Until the bats can heat up and find ways to hit that coveted four-run threshold, more pressure will fall on the rotation to be even better than they’ve been, with Bieber being the main key leading the rotation. If nothing else, Bieber at least erased any concerns, saying his high pitch counts this year have not caused him any fatigue and that he’s physically ready to get himself back on the right track and get Cleveland back in the win column.

“When you don’t have multiple pitches,” Bieber said, “and you’re not locating the ball and they seem to have a decent team approach and waiting for stuff in the middle to take advantage of, it’s tough for that to be a recipe for success. I think I just have to keep things in perspective and continue momentum moving forward and just be better for it.”