Giolito. Bieber. A clash of aces for the ages

April 14th, 2021

CHICAGO -- It’s so easy to get excited when two aces are slated to pitch against each other, but so rarely do the matchups truly live up to the hype. On Tuesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field, Cleveland’s and the White Sox did not disappoint.

Giolito had thrown 101 pitches through seven innings, but he ran back out to the rubber to face one more batter in the eighth. On the other side, Bieber was as efficient as he’s ever been, tossing 113 pitches in nine frames without allowing a run. But it was the Indians who bested the White Sox in the end, taking a 2-0 victory on an RBI broken-bat infield single by Roberto Pérez and an RBI double by Amed Rosario in the 10th inning before James Karinchak picked up his first save of the year by shutting down Chicago in the bottom half of the frame.

“I thought that was one of the best-pitched games on both sides that I've seen in a long time,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “[Bieber and Giolito] are two of the best.”

Giolito called this battle the type of game he’ll remember for a long time. He pointed to a mound matchup with Jacob deGrom on July 31, 2019, when Giolito was moving into elite status. The two went pitch for pitch for seven innings, with deGrom fanning 11 and Giolito striking out nine while they each allowed one run.

“It was kind of a similar thing. Very close game, going back and forth,” Giolito said. “The way Bieber was pitching tonight, I didn't have to wait in the dugout very long to get back out there. So it was like full go for every inning. We were both putting up zeros. It's just a battle. And it's pretty exciting, pretty fun. Just had to stay within myself.”

“Both of them were making just high-quality pitches,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said. “The whole night, good hitters, both lineups. It’s disappointing but it’s not difficult to admire talent like that.”

Bieber, the unanimous 2020 American League Cy Young Award winner, was focused on how he could improve in 2021 entering the season. The number one thing the Indians’ ace wanted to work on was getting deeper into games, and it’s starting to show. Before Tuesday, the right-hander had only been more efficient through six innings one other time in his career. Bieber wrapped up the sixth with 67 pitches -- the second-fewest he’s ever thrown to get through six frames (66 pitches on July 24, 2019).

How did he get there?

Bieber and his batterymate, Pérez, noticed early in the night that Chicago’s hitters were being aggressive and couldn’t lay off the curveball. It was a pitch the duo turned to 46 times -- and eight times in a row in the fourth inning, when Bieber struck out the side -- as it induced a 42 percent whiff rate and was called for a strike 11 times. From the third inning through the end of the sixth, Bieber struck out seven batters -- five of them on the curve.

“I love when he gets in that groove where he strikes out a lot of people,” Pérez said. “We feel like they never make an adjustment on his breaking balls. That's why we went like six or seven in a row in one inning. But he was good tonight.”

Tuesday’s start marked the first time in three 2021 trips to the mound that Giolito worked at least seven innings. He threw 7-plus, exiting after walking Pérez to open the eighth, allowing three hits, two walks and striking out eight.

According to Statcast, Bieber recorded 20 swings and misses while Giolito finished with 13. Cleveland threatened in the second inning when Eddie Rosario opened with a double, but he was stranded there after Franmil Reyes grounded out, Josh Naylor popped out and Jake Bauers was called out on strikes. Even without his best stuff, Giolito still was able to keep Cleveland off the board.

“I’ll tell you, man. What you look for first is the willingness to compete,” said La Russa of Giolito. “You saw what Gio will do given an opportunity matched up against one of the best. In the end that’s what makes the great ones and good ones in this league who are productive. They compete.”

“I knew going in, Bieber won the Cy Young last year, he'll probably make it pretty difficult on our hitters,” Giolito said. “So I've got to try and bring my best stuff and put up as many zeros as I can. Makes it exciting.”

High strikeout numbers so often correlate to high pitch counts, which is why the majority of Bieber’s outings over the past year have topped out before the end of the seventh inning. His pitch count on Tuesday may have stayed lower because he went without a strikeout in his first 2 2/3 frames. But in typical Bieber fashion, he still fanned 11 batters and set the franchise record for most consecutive starts with at least eight strikeouts (15), passing Corey Kluber.

“When Bieber has his stuff like that, everything is working, it's tough to hit him,” Pérez said. “I hope he continues to do what he's doing so far this year. We're getting ahead on guys, we're not falling behind guys, and when we need a strikeout, we can go get it.”

Giolito retired 21 of the 26 batters he faced and now owns a 9 1/3-innings scoreless streak since the fourth inning of his start on April 6 at Seattle. This night marked the third matchup between the pair of aces, with both previously posting no-decisions on Aug. 9, 2020, at Guaranteed Rate Field and Sept. 23, 2020, at Progressive Field -- both games won by Cleveland.

Bieber allowed three earned runs over 11 innings with 18 strikeouts in those two, while Giolito recorded a 2.77 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 13 innings. But while the quality of pitching was at the same level, the atmosphere was different for Giolito on Tuesday night.

Maybe it was because Giolito had family and friends in the stands, with his brother, Casey, being shown on the White Sox broadcast intensely focused on the contest. Maybe it was because fans have returned to baseball stadiums.

"First game back [at home] in a new season, a full season, as opposed to the 60 [games],” Giolito said. “Having the fans back in attendance, that was huge.

“Hearing the crowd stand up and cheer in the two-strike counts, it just makes it more fun. This was a lot of fun tonight. Unfortunately, it didn't go our way in the end, but I thought it was a hell of a battle on both sides."

Bieber is only 25 years old and already has a résumé of a seasoned veteran. He has a Cy Young Award, strikeout records and three complete games (two shutouts) under his belt. But he knew that Tuesday’s performance -- especially after Francona trusted him to finish the ninth with two runners on and over 100 pitches deep -- was one of the biggest moments of his young career.

“It’s special to me,” Bieber said. “It was great to know tonight’s matchup was kind of as advertised and we were able to come out on top.”