Worth the wait: 3 perfect IP in Bieber's return

First start since June 13 gives righty ‘peace of mind’ before offseason

September 25th, 2021

CLEVELAND -- Shane Bieber waited 103 days for this moment.

A rehab process that was originally hoping to be just a few weeks turned into over three months after Bieber was diagnosed with a right shoulder strain following his last outing on June 13. For the first time in his career, he was forced to watch from the sidelines. But that wait made three perfect innings in the Indians’ 1-0 loss to the White Sox on Friday night at Progressive Field taste even sweeter.

“A lot of hard work, a lot of emotion, a lot of ups and downs kind of coming to fruition, but ultimately, this was the goal,” Bieber said. “Whether it’s for 12 starts, two starts, one start, whatever it may be, it’s to come back this year and to come back strong and come back healthy. Although we didn’t end up getting the ‘W’ tonight, it just felt good to be able to go out there and feel the energy of the crowd again.”

This was everything the Indians have missed. Bieber’s velocity was down a tick on each of his pitches -- as expected, considering he had little time to get himself ready on a Minor League rehab assignment -- but his stuff was still there. He faced nine batters, threw 34 pitches and recorded one flyout, two lineouts, three strikeouts and three groundouts to retire each batter he faced.

“I think I was throwing pellets in the bullpen, and I was a little juiced up if I’m being forward with you guys,” Bieber said, with a grin. “Everything was real sharp, real good in the bullpen, so that’s good feedback, as well. But I would’ve liked to show a little more [velocity] out there and get behind things.”

Indians pitching coach Carl Willis explained on Thursday that the plan was to have Bieber pitch three innings against the White Sox. He figured that would end up being around 50-55 pitches. Willis also explained that the team wasn’t expecting pinpoint accuracy out of its ace since he hasn’t pitched that often in the last three months. And efficiency was something Bieber struggled with at the beginning of the season, especially in the second inning of his outings, as he pitched to a 5.14 ERA in that frame during his first 14 starts of the year.

But this time, he was quite the opposite and cruised through three perfect frames against one of the toughest lineups in the Majors. However, the team decided to stick to its plan of having him work just three innings despite his pitch count.

“Sometimes, you get tempted [to leave a pitcher in] and you ask the player,” Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale said. “I thought his mindset was either three innings or 50 pitches, and we got to the third inning and it’s like, ‘OK, he accomplished what we wanted him to accomplish.’”

When Bieber first was injured, he hoped to come back and make 10 more starts this season. As the rehab process grew longer and longer, he simply wanted to get back on the big league rubber at least one more time before the season came to an end. He’s now accomplished that goal and if all goes to plan, he’ll make one more start next Thursday in Kansas City.

But the biggest question that keeps popping up is: Why? Why is Bieber risking coming back too soon for just two shortened starts? Why is he trying to pitch in games after Cleveland has already been eliminated from the postseason? He and the Indians' coaching staff have been asked countless times if it was worth him coming back this year, and every time, the answer was, “Yes.”

Willis explained why on Thursday: “I think the biggest benefit is really for Shane’s peace of mind. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s been extremely patient. He needs to be commended for that, but it was difficult. ... To get a couple outings and then go into the offseason to prepare for Spring Training, I think will put him in a good frame of mind.”

The better frame of mind the 2020 American League Cy Young Award winner is in, the more the soon-to-be Guardians will benefit in 2022. Assuming the rotation stays intact over the winter, Cleveland could once again boast one of the best starting staffs in the big leagues with Bieber, Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill. And for the final 10 games of the regular season of 2021, the Indians will finally have a sneak peak of that starting five.

“I was definitely looking forward to [this start],” Bieber said. “I definitely enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to [starting again] in five or six days from now, as well.”