CLEVELAND — The potential for embarrassment was huge.
Someone with the Indians in-house entertainment crew asked starting pitcher Shane Bieber to put on a stars-and-stripes cowboy hat and finish lines to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” with cameras and microphones everywhere, and recording everything, Monday at the All-Star Game news conferences.
Bieber didn’t flinch. After a pause, he sang back the lines, even adding a hint of twang.
The California cool — he went to Laguna Hills High School and wore a white shirt with a floral print Monday — doesn’t desert him when he leaves the mound.
“He acts like he’s 30 years old,” said closer Brad Hand, an Indians and All-Star teammate. “Just a real polished 24-year-old. It’s been fun to watch him pitch.”
If the baseball world hadn’t grasped that Bieber is advanced for his age, the selection to tonight’s All-Star Game at Progressive Field drove home the point.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander didn’t make his major league debut until May 31, 2018, so this is the first year he’s been eligible for selection to the Midsummer Classic. He’s 1-for-1, which was the goal despite opening the season as the fifth starter in Cleveland’s rotation.
“You always think it’s possible, it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it,” Bieber said. “Just really trying to establish myself in the league right now.”
He’s 8-3 with a 3.45 ERA, despite two starts in which he allowed five earned runs without making it out of the third inning in either. He has 141 strikeouts and 23 walks in 1121⁄3 innings, ranking sixth (11.3) in the AL in strikeouts per nine innings and fifth (1.8) in walks. He has the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Control might be his greatest asset, as he walked only 23 last year in 114 2⁄3 innings, going 11-5 with a 4.55 ERA and 118 strikeouts.
He got the news of his All-Star status Friday, when he and Oakland’s Liam Hendriks were named to replace the injured Charlie Morton of the Rays and Mike Minor of the Rangers. Bieber started Saturday in Cincinnati and had to quickly get past the emotions that had his body “shaking.”
Even if the cool customer isn’t always so collected, he knows how to quickly restore the calm.
“Was able to fortunately push everything to the side and focus on what I needed to do,” Bieber said of the victory in which he allowed
two runs and four hits in eight innings while striking out eight.
He’s prepared for a quick turnaround and to take the mound tonight.
“I was told to be ready to pitch,” he said. “So if my name’s called I’m ready to go.”
Bieber said the reality of the All-Star selection hadn’t set in. He was expecting the “wow, really here” moment to come Monday night during the Home Run Derby or in the introductions before the game tonight.
“It is my first time and it’s Cleveland and it’s a big deal,” he said.
When asked his favorite All-Star moment of all time, he didn’t need to search his childhood memory bank.
“This would take the cake,” he said.
Bieber walked on at the University of California, Santa Barbara before developing into a fourth-round pick of the Indians in 2016. His salary this season is $560,000 and he’s not eligible for arbitration until 2022 or free agency until 2025. So he’s the perfect player for the budget-conscious organization.
“This kid is getting better in front of our eyes,” manager Terry Francona said. “And he’s doing it at the major league level. And he’s not done.”
Hand expects the All-Star nod to further boost Bieber’s confidence.
“It’s one of those things that’s going to stay with you your whole career, you’re going to be an All-Star,” Hand said. “If you’re struggling or you’re grinding and you think that you suck, you can always say, ‘I’m an All-Star, I’m good. So don’t worry about it, just go out there and pitch.’”
Francona said some players fall into the trap of believing they’ve arrived when they make the All-Star Game so early in their careers.
“That’s not Bieber,” he said. “Whether he made it or not, he’s going to show up tomorrow and work his a-- off and do the same thing the next day.”
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