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Zulgad: Acing the test: Shane Bieber has no issues shutting down Twins' powerful lineup

Shane Bieber
Cleveland Indians’ pitcher Shane Bieber throws against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS — Jose Berrios was handed the ball and a 4-0 lead after the top of the first inning last Friday in the Twins’ season-opener against the White Sox in Chicago. The hope was the Twins’ top starting pitcher would take it from there.

Berrios failed to do so, giving up five runs in the first two innings. The score was tied 5-5 through two and Berrios was lifted after four innings with the Twins leading, 7-5. He had surrendered five hits, walked one and struck out one and did not come anywhere close to looking the part of the big-league ace the Twins are hoping the 26-year-old will become in his fifth season.

A chance for atonement arrived on Thursday night at Target Field as Berrios was matched up against Cleveland righthander Shane Bieber. Bieber, 25, is beginning his third big-league season and already has established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. He went 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA in 34 games and 33 starts last season and had three complete games and two shutouts. Bieber struck out the side on 19 pitches in the fifth inning of the American League’s 4-3 victory in the All-Star Game in his home ballpark and was named MVP of the game.

Bieber got the ball to start Cleveland’s coronavirus-delayed season last Friday and fanned14 Royals hitters in six innings to establish a franchise record for most strikeouts by a pitcher on Opening Day. This is not a stat to be taken lightly considering Cleveland’s history. Bob Feller started the opener seven times for the franchise and threw a no-hitter against the White Sox on April 16, 1940.

So what did Bieber do for an encore performance? Plenty.

He left Berrios feeling envious and the Bomba Squad looking helpless, and, for one night, defused. It wasn’t that Berrios pitched poorly, it was that Bieber was brilliant in Cleveland’s 2-0 victory and showed the Twins exactly what a legitimate, top-level ace can do.

Berrios gave up two runs in five innings — a two-run homer to right off the bat of Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor in the third inning — along with three hits and two walks as he threw 57 of his 96 pitches for strikes. He also struck out six Cleveland hitters as his four-game winning streak against the team ended.

Bieber, meanwhile, worked eight masterful innings before no fans at Target Field and a partial national television audience on FOX. He did not give up a hit until Luis Arraez singled to lead off the third inning. Bieber responded by striking out Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler to end the inning. Bieber gave up back-to-back singles to Buxton and Kepler in the sixth as the Twins attempted to put together a rally. But Josh Donaldson, who had two home runs in two career at-bats against Bieber entering Thursday, struck out for the third time in the game and Jorge Polanco flew out to center.

That was all the hits the Twins got off Bieber. He did not walk a batter and he struck out 13 before being removed after throwing 69 of his 102 pitches for strikes over eight innings. James Karinchak recorded the final three outs for the save as he kept the shutout intact. The Twins entered Thursday’s game with the fourth most runs in baseball (36) and were blanked for only the fourth time over the past two seasons.

When Bieber struck out Sano for the second out in the eighth inning that gave him 26 strikeouts in his first two starts of the season, tying the American League record set by the Angels’ Nolan Ryan in 1978. Bieber wasn’t done. He fanned Buxton to end the eighth for his 13th strikeout, tying the Major League record that was established in 1954 by Brooklyn’s Karl Spooner. Bieber has faced 50 batters this season and walked one.

While Lindor remains a fantastic player, Cleveland’s lineup doesn’t strike fear in the heart of anyone. Its rotation is another story. Trevor Bauer was traded to the Reds last season and Corey Kluber, a two-time AL Cy Young award winner, was dealt to Texas in the offseason. Even with those two gone, Cleveland’s rotation is still among the best and deepest in baseball. Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac are all capable of limiting quality lineups.

Clevinger, who went 13-4 with a 2.71 ERA in 21 games last season, is scheduled to face Randy Dobnak on Friday at Target Field. Cleveland’s starters are now 5-0 with a 1.53 ERA through seven games and Cleveland has an early half-game lead on the Twins in the American League Central.

That isn’t a concern considering 16 teams will make the playoffs in 2020. What is a concern is that Cleveland rotation and the fact Terry Francona’s club has true ace to put on the mound in a crucial game.