2022 MLB Playoffs: Can rejuvenated Shane Bieber pull Guardians back from brink?

By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer

Once upon a time, no longer too way back, Shane Bieber was once the most productive pitcher on planet earth.

To be honest, that was once right through the COVID-shortened 2020 marketing campaign, that magnificent farce of a baseball season. For a game designed to be made up our minds over six months, 60 video games was once merely no longer sufficient time to ascertain a vital pattern dimension. 

It’s hilarious to appear back now. Luke Voit led baseball with 22 homers. Dom Smith completed 7th in OPS. The Miami Marlins made the freakin’ playoffs. Trying to tell apart the substitute from the substantive was once a idiot’s errand. Gazing into that statistical haze may make you woozy, make you imagine in lies.

But what Shane Bieber did that yr was once actual.

During that abridged season, Bieber was once silly nice. Beneath the silent echoes of empty stadium rows covered with cardboard cutouts, the then-25-year-old swaggered out to the hill each and every 5 days and carved via hapless lineup after hapless lineup like a chainsaw via butter. Other than “essential personnel,” no person witnessed the magic in particular person. On tv, despite the fact that, Bieber’s late-summer begins was late-era quarantine appointment viewing — “Tiger King” for the attentive baseball fan. 

Terry Francona: Shane Bieber can throw any pitch to any spot

Terry Francona: Shane Bieber can throw any pitch to any spot

In August 2020, Cleveland supervisor Terry Francona mentioned how spectacular Shane Bieber’s construction was once that season.

In his 12 begins, Bieber allowed simplest 14 runs in 77⅓ innings, with an impressive 122/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in addition. Even within the sophisticated muck of an abbreviated season, with some doubting the legitimacy of his workforce’s soft COVID Cup agenda, Bieber’s dominance left indisputably when it got here to award season. He gained the AL Cy Young unanimously, the primary pitcher to take action since Justin Verlander in 2011. Heading into 2021, Bieber was once a hurler on best of the sector, the league at his fingertips, a half-decade of dominance inside his take hold of.

That’s when his shoulder began to harm.

Shane Bieber went 8-1 with a 1.63 ERA within the shortened 2020 season to win the Cy Young Award, however shoulder hassle plagued him all through 2021 and into this yr. (Photo by way of Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The 2022 Cleveland Guardians are an cute tale. They’re a rag-tag workforce of pals who refuse to strike out and experience taking part in baseball in combination, a tender and vigorous workforce led by way of Terry Francona that flat out outclassed a more-talented-on-paper White Sox workforce to seize a department crown. Also, José Ramírez

But after a crowd-pleasing, wild-card-round-winning, Fifteenth-inning blast off the bat of a rookie who walks as much as the “SpongeBob SquarePants” theme music, q4’s maximum heartwarming ballclub was once dealt a heavy dose of truth. The New York Yankees and their huge payroll and their even better gamers soundly dispatched the infant Clevelanders in Game 1 of the ALDS on Tuesday by way of a rating of 4-1.

Yankees vs. Guardians ALDS Game 1 Recap

Yankees vs. Guardians ALDS Game 1 Recap

Ben Verlander and Alex Curry react to the Yankees’ Game 1 win within the ALDS over the Guardians.

To name the Guardians’ present offense useless is an affront to the deceased. In their two video games towards Tampa, they scored a grand overall of 3 runs and gained the sequence anyway. Game 1 in Yankee Stadium towards Gerrit Cole was once extra of the similar, with Cleveland’s simplest run a solo shot from not going house run hero Steven Kwan.

And that is the place Shane Bieber is available in.

Bieber, who was once stellar in his Game 1 get started towards the Rays, will take the ball towards New York on Thursday with a valid shot to even a chain wherein Cleveland has been given little likelihood. A win would ship the sequence back to Progressive Field knotted at one, with Cleveland’s different ace, Triston McKenzie slated to start out Game 3. So if the Guardians need their lovable, quirky season to be greater than a feel-good footnote in franchise historical past, they will want their ace, their horse, to shove towards the Bronx Bombers in Game 2.

Typically calm, understatedly cool, Bieber is unmistakably from California. He’s normally unphased, unbothered, relax as a Yeti in a walk-in freezer. Also, he says “dude” so much.

But underneath that outer layer is a fierce competitor, a dude who, when he is at the mound, needs to f— your s— up. Unlike a lot of his friends, Bieber does not have a bone-rattling heater that threatens triple digits and makes your arm hair rise up. His good fortune depends on impeccable fastball command, a deep arsenal of pitches and a grandmaster’s mentality: 5 strikes forward of you all the time.

And now, after virtually a complete yr of pitching at restricted capability because of his harm, the person is undeniably back. But he isn’t simply 2020 Bieber two years later. No, this can be a sharper, extra centered and extra appreciative model of the pitcher who set baseball ablaze. And that is as a result of, for the primary time in his occupation, Shane Bieber had to sit down out.

Bieber’s earlier postseason get started vs. the Yankees did not move smartly. He will get every other likelihood on Thursday within the Bronx. (Photo by way of Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Like each and every different pitcher on the earth, Bieber had skilled some degree of arm discomfort ahead of. That’s an unavoidable truth of the gig. Those different occasions, he’d pitched via it till the ache subsided. And so, he did not assume a lot of the aching in his shoulder ultimate season, assuming that someday it could fade. Besides, he was once nonetheless pitching exceptionally smartly, racking up numbers just a tick worse than the season ahead of.

But two months into the 2021 season, the ache remained. In truth, it had gotten worse. On get started days, Bieber may grit his enamel and experience the adrenaline via six innings of labor, however in between his outings the ache had grow to be insufferable. He labored to mitigate the discomfort to no avail, and by way of the start of June, the right-hander was once in agony. Bieber himself known as the ache at that time “debilitating.” 

So after his first stinker of the season — a five-run, two-homer appearing towards Seattle wherein his fastball pace and curveball spin had been each noticeably down — Cleveland put him at the IL with a muscle pressure in his rotator cuff. The plan was once two weeks, no throwing, and then level he could be reevaluated. 

“He didn’t want to go on the IL,” Francona informed MLB.com on the time. “That’s the type of teammate he’s. We mentioned, ‘We want you to have a long, healthy career.’ And we don’t want him limping through it. That’s not fair to him.”

So onto the shelf went the ace with the bum arm. Shoulder injuries don’t exactly have the rosiest history. In this game, it’s actually better to get your elbow ligaments chopped up and stitched back together like a Thanksgiving turkey than it is to feel significant pain in your rotator cuff. 

Thankfully for Bieber, he avoided going under the knife, his treatment instead filled with rest and physical therapy. For a guy who’d never missed time with an injury — not in college at UC-Santa Barbara, not in his brief minor-league career and not in the bigs — it was a rude awakening and a difficult transition.

“It was miserable, dude,” Bieber told FOX Sports during Cleveland’s off-day workout at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. “I hated it.”

Instead of recovering at the team’s training complex in Arizona, Bieber opted to stay in Cleveland to remain around the team in order to “not lose the feeling.” Despite the familiar surroundings, his first experience with rehab was much harder than he’d had anticipated. 

“I couldn’t wait to get healthy, so I could finally take a break,” he said.

By September, after grinding through months of rehab, Bieber finally felt healthy enough to pitch, making two pitch-count-limited starts at the end of the season. But even heading into spring training 2022, Bieber still knew that he hadn’t fully returned to his best. It took until mid-August, during a start on the road against the Blue Jays, for that feeling to completely return. But when it did, Bieber grabbed onto it, slicing and dicing in his final 10 starts for a 2.24 ERA in 68⅓ innings.

Bieber credits that time away from the mound with giving him some much-needed perspective.  He’d gone from unknown fourth-round pick to Cy Young winner in a blink, and according to him, a little introspection went a long way. Nowadays, he’s more thankful for the big-league life he leads, for the natural gifts he has been given and for the talent he has been able to cultivate. 

“Now, I always think to myself: How f—ing lucky am I?” Bieber said about getting to play major-league baseball. “This is the coolest thing ever.”

If his recent bumps and deep breaths have truly given him a calmer, more measured presence, then we’ll see it against the Yankees on Thursday in what’s undoubtedly the biggest start of Bieber’s life. He has faced New York in the playoffs once before, at an empty Progressive Field in the bizarre COVID Cup round of 16. That night, Bieber got rocked, allowing seven earned on nine hits in just 4⅔ innings.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about that [outing] for a while,” Bieber admitted. “But I truly believe I’m a different person and a different pitcher now, so I’m excited to take [Thursday] as it comes.”

You can’t win a baseball game 0-0, no matter how hard the Guardians may try. Cleveland’s success hinges on Bieber showing out on Thursday, but if the offense sleeps in, the Guardians might lose anyway. 

As for Bieber, after spending so much time battling to recapture the fullest version of himself, he is shrinking his world, tunneling his perspective. The dude is just glad to be out there, thankful for the opportunity, stoked to be yet again pitching at his best.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan dwelling in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely lifestyles maximum Octobers. If he’s no longer observing baseball, he’s virtually indubitably driving his motorcycle. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.

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