Bieber rediscovering ace form at right time

20 minutes ago

ST. PETERSBURG — This wasn’t just the Shane Bieber the Guardians wanted to see on Friday night. It’s the Bieber the team needed to see if it wants to remain in contention this season.

“I felt like tonight was a step in the right direction,” Bieber said.

Bieber has shown flashes of his Cy Young-like self at times this season, especially in his last outing before the All-Star break, when he tossed a complete game on 95 pitches. But each time he has taken a step forward, at least one step back has ensued. Now, he’s hoping that grinding through seven innings while allowing just one run in the Guardians’ 4-1 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field can be the start of a strong second half as Cleveland battles to remain in playoff contention.

“We know how difficult the game is, ups and downs, but we know what Bieber can do,” Jos? Ram?rez, who had three RBIs on the night, said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero.

Let’s take a look at three positive takeaways from Bieber’s outing:

1. Ace-like gritEven if a hurler doesn’t have his best stuff or gets off to a slow start like Bieber’s 26-pitch first inning, an ace finds a way to dig deep into games. Bieber has proven to be this team’s ace over the past few years, but he hasn’t been seeing the same type of success in 2022 as he has been used to.

The first step to getting him back as the strongest member of the Guardians’ rotation is having the ability to grind through a long first inning, allow only one run in that frame and still get through six more innings while avoiding further damage — exactly what Bieber was able to do on Friday night.

That’s kind of an efficient feeling,” Bieber said of the rhythm he found. “Ultimately, if you’re eating up innings, everything else, all the peripherals are going to tick up as well. That’s kind of what I’m chasing.”

2. The stuff is trending upBieber’s velocity has been a focal point all season. There’s no hiding that his fastball is sitting 2 mph slower than it was last year and 4 mph slower than it was in 2020, when he won the AL Cy Young Award. Because of that, it has been common to see him turn to his slider more in his outings than his heater. But against the Rays, he saw a tick up in his four-seam velocity, averaging 91.9 mph (as opposed to his season average of 90.9 mph). He turned to the offering 41 percent of the time — his third-highest usage in a start all season — and it was called for a strike 14 times, tied for the second most of the year.

When that fastball is working, the rest of his arsenal can fall into place. Of the eight hacks hitters took against his curve, six resulted in misses.

“He’s a sharp kid,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “When he gets in that rhythm and he starts commanding and he starts spinning that breaking ball, he can be really good.”

3. Tweaking the mechanicsBieber explained that while he has struggled at times this season, he has been looking for answers. He and his coaching staff have been working on making tweaks to his delivery as they collect more data from each trip to the rubber. And if Friday is any indication of the work he has put in, he appears to be on the right path.

“We’re trying to make some adjustments mechanically with my arm path and all of that, so I don’t feel like I’m where I know I can be,” Bieber said. “It was a confidence-inspiring outing.”

For the first time in a while, the Guardians don’t have a lights-out rotation to lean on. While the bats have been more productive this season than in recent memory, the team needs to have at least a couple of reliable starters to remain in playoff contention. Outside of Triston McKenzie, the team has struggled to find that consistency.

If Bieber can get back to his ace-like self to help McKenzie carry the staff, the Guardians will be in much better shape. Without a dominant Bieber, Cleveland’s road to the playoffs will be bumpy.

“I’m making a lot of adjustments in season, and that’s not the most ideal,” Bieber said, “but we’re playing for September and October. Like I said, tonight was a step in the right direction.”