New ace? This pitcher's off to historic start

July 31st, 2020

The Indians’ starting rotation got all the attention during the team’s six-game homestand against the Royals and White Sox. Tribe manager Terry Francona said that if they left Minnesota on Sunday making the same remarks about their starters after facing a lethal Twins lineup, they’d be in pretty good shape.

In the series opener, , once again, stole the show.

His success from Opening Day was no fluke. The Tribe’s ace dominated in eight innings, striking out 13 batters without permitting a walk or run, leading Cleveland to a 2-0 victory over Minnesota at Target Field on Thursday night. The Indians became the first team since at least 1901 to have four 10-plus-strikeout outings from their pitchers in the first seven games of the season.

“He’s something special, man,” said Indians reliever , who notched his first career save on Thursday. “He’s, I believe, going to be a Cy Young pitcher one day. Every time he goes out there that’s honestly what I expect him to do. He’s so nasty, commands everything, just makes every hitter uncomfortable.”

But that’s not the only record Bieber etched his name beside on Thursday. After his six-inning, 14-strikeout performance on Opening Day against the Royals, the right-hander has now accumulated 27 strikeouts on the year, which is tied with the Dodgers' Karl Spooner (1954) for the most in a pitcher’s first two outings of a season, according to Elias. Bieber established a new American League record, passing Nolan Ryan's 25 strikeouts through two starts in 1978.

“That’s amazing company to be in, even in the same sentence with,” Bieber said. “Definitely going to enjoy this one.”

Bieber hardly ran into trouble during his first start and had just one tough inning on Thursday, putting runners on first and second with one out in the sixth. With slugger Josh Donaldson at the plate, Bieber was able to get him to strike out on a curveball in the dirt on the seventh pitch of the at-bat. He escaped the frame unscathed when he got Jorge Polanco to line out to center.

“I don’t think we figured him out,” Donaldson said. “On a scouting scale of 20-80, that was like 70 command tonight with the heater. ... I thought his breaking ball was phenomenal. Thought he had a good slider to go with it, kept the lefties off balance with it. Cutter as well and changeup. He mixed it up all well. If I go through all of my at-bats, there was like one pitch or one fastball -- I took it my first at-bat, first pitch -- that was on the heart of the plate. And besides that, I didn’t see him miss too many times tonight.”

After throwing 37 curveballs (13 of which resulted in swings and misses) on Opening Day, Bieber threw another 34 against the Twins, which produced nine swings and misses and six called strikes. Even though his curveball has been deadly, if you ask his catcher what his best pitch was, the answer isn’t as clear.

“Every one,” Sandy León said with a big smile. “When you have four pitches and you can throw any of them in any count, that’s unbelievable.”

Bieber has gone from college walk-on to an ace of one of the best rotations in the Majors. He’s also transformed from a pitch-to-contact reputation throughout the Minor Leagues to becoming a strikeout machine, joining Corey Kluber (2014), Dennis Eckersley (1976), Sam McDowell (‘65, ‘68) and Luis Tiant (‘68) as the only Indians pitchers to record at least 13 strikeouts in two consecutive starts.

“Probably not ever,” Bieber said, when asked when he last recorded so many strikeouts. “I could try to rack my brain, but I’ve never been that much of a punchout pitcher, especially coming up through the Minors. ... I made some adjustments over the past couple years and started to see more swing-and-miss.

“I think [Carlos Carrasco] said it the other day, ‘We like to strike guys out.’ That’s what we’re going for. Obviously, we’re trying to put up zeros and get the ‘W’ first and foremost, but if we can get some strikeouts while we’re at it, that’s always fun too.”