Triumphant Bieber makes star turn in WC win

October 8th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- When ’s work was done, 7 2/3 innings after it began, manager Terry Francona clapped his hands as he walked toward the mound to take the ball, and the red-clad crowd at Progressive Field stood and did the same.

Then Bieber did some clapping of his own, slapping his right hand into his gloved left hand to salute those who were saluting him. His almost-spotless effort helped the Guardians win a 2-1 game to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three American League Wild Card Series against the Rays on Friday afternoon. But this moment of crowd and ace clapping in unison was also an occasion for Bieber to get the true Cy Young winner treatment that the pandemic year had stolen from him.

“I didn't realize what type of pitcher I am until the crowd gets into it,” Bieber said later. “I feel it, and I don't want to shy away from that. I want to take it in, and I want to let it out.”

The 27-year-old Bieber, who, somewhat under the radar, rounded back into Cy Young candidate form as the 2022 season evolved, let it out on the big stage, allowing only a José Siri solo shot, two ground-ball singles and a walk. For a guy whose 2020 Cy Young Award-winning campaign was played in front of … nobody and whose lone previous postseason start (unfortunately, a clunker against the Yankees in Game 1 of the 2020 ALWCS) was played in front of … nobody, this was a moment of earned adulation.

“Everybody in the game knows who Shane Bieber is,” Cleveland pitching coach Carl Willis said. “But I just thought it was really cool that a national audience and these fans here today got to see who he is.”

Bieber’s outing, in which he held the Rays hitless through four innings, was the longest by a Guardians pitcher since Roberto Hernandez persevered against the midges and the Yankees in Game 2 of the AL Division Series in 2007.

That was so long ago that both the ballclub and Hernandez (who you might remember better as Fausto Carmona) both had different names back then.

For Cleveland in this contest, the names that mattered most were those of Bieber and José Ramírez, whose two-run shot in the bottom of the sixth was the offensive difference-maker. Much has been made about how the youngest roster in MLB stormed to the top of the AL Central this season, but Bieber and perennial MVP candidate Ramírez are this team’s signature, established stars.

A right shoulder strain prevented Bieber from pitching like a star -- or even pitching much at all -- in 2021. And the residue from that rut carried into the start of this season, as his velocity early on was rather worrisome.

Bieber, though, kept proving he had the arsenal and the intellect to get people out, even if his stuff wasn’t all the way back. And as the year progressed and the velo crept back up and he began to trust the strength of his shoulder again, we saw the return of Cy Young Shane. In his final 13 starts of the regular season, he held opponents to a .215/.237/.325 slash while striking out 88 and walking only 10. He ranked first among all AL pitchers in innings (88 1/3) and third in ERA (2.04) in that span.

“If you look at what he's done in his last like 13 or 14 starts, it's as good as it gets,” catcher said. “And you watch the swings guys take, and you don't see those types of swings off of other nasty big league pitchers. If you're pitching the big leagues, you're nasty, you're a legit guy. But you just don't see the swings that guys are taking on his slider and his curveball, specifically.”

In Friday’s cold conditions, Bieber didn’t turn to his curve much. Rather, Bieber quieted the Rays with pristine fastball command that compelled them to fruitlessly chase his slider -- a pitch that got 10 whiffs on 15 swings.

“He presented himself really well,” Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena said. “He had a great outing. None of us could really do anything.”

Bieber did everything he could to put Cleveland in position to end a franchise-record eight-game postseason losing streak and seize the advantage in this weekend’s Wild Card Series. That they did so in a crisp two hours and 17 minutes was in big part a credit to his command of this moment.

“I'm still finding it, which is an exciting thought,” Bieber said. “That's what keeps me going.”