What was rationale for Guardians’ controversial pitching decision?

NEW YORK — The Cleveland Guardians’ hopes of continuing their knack of defying the odds and surprising anyone outside of their own clubhouse came to an end Tuesday night in New York.

Cleveland, in a win-or-go-home American League Division Series Game 5, fell 5-1 to the Yankees. New York now flies to Houston to face the Astros in the American League Championship Series. The Guardians return to Cleveland.

The Guardians got their punches in, pushing the Yankees to the brink and having two shots to close out the series, but Gerrit Cole, Mother Nature (which impacted the Yankees’ pitching plans), Nestor Cortes and Giancarlo Stanton were too much to overcome in Games 4 and 5.

Much of the talk surrounding the Guardians leading into Game 5 revolved around a decision they’d need to make: Do they start Aaron Civale or bring back Shane Bieber on short rest.

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All things considered, there were a number of factors in each case. Of course in hindsight, after Civale gave up three runs and recorded only one out, there will be questions about what Bieber might have done in that situation. But it sounds as though the Guardians might not have been comfortable with that scenario from a health standpoint.

One of the mantras of Guardians manager Terry Francona is that the team needs to do what is right by the player and the team, even when it isn’t convenient. It’s one of the reasons he’s so revered by those who play for him. That idea was a major factor.

Bieber, a cornerstone of the franchise and ace of the staff, missed extended time in 2021 with a shoulder injury. It was the first time in his professional career he was sidelined for that long. He spent much of the 2022 season adjusting before hitting his stride toward the second half of the season. He put together a 200-inning season in 2022, which was a major milestone after what he had been through in 2021.

Francona was asked about the decision Tuesday afternoon, prior to the game. He first noted that the team has pitched starters on short rest before, a list that includes Corey Kluber in the World Series. It isn’t something Francona has shied away from in the past, which also adds to the notion that there were other considerations, like Bieber’s health, in mind. It’s something that was heavily discussed with pitching coach Carl Willis and the team’s medical staff.

‘We just feel like it’s the right thing to do for him and us,’ Francona said. ‘Now, he’s going to go out to the bullpen and if we empty our bullpen, he’s out there. But we’re not sending him out there as a weapon. And we recognize how good a pitcher he is. It’s not because he can’t pitch. Just, he’s been through a lot. You know, he had an injury last year, and he’s had a remarkable year, but it’s not been probably as easy as he’s made it look.’

There are other factors that pointed toward Civale in addition to Bieber’s health, which the team wanted to protect long term. One is that over the last several years, starting pitchers haven’t exactly fared well on three days rest. It has worked at times, of course, but there’s a reason pitchers don’t often throw on short rest.

Bieber also noted after the game that he’s never pitched on short rest, though he added, ‘Could I? Sure.’ But there were health risks involved in asking Bieber to do something he had never done before coming off a shoulder injury the year prior.

‘I told (Francona) and Carl whatever they wanted and in whatever capacity they wanted me to contribute, I was willing to do so,’ Bieber said. ‘That was our decision. I don’t know. I don’t want you to put words in anybody’s mouths, but that’s how it shook out. If we’re gonna go all the way, we’ve got to do it as a team and that’s what we’ve done really from Game 1. I think everybody has the utmost confidence in each other and ourselves. That’s just kind of how the cards fell today.”

Bieber also would have been in line to start Game 1 of the ALCS in Houston on Wednesday on normal rest if the Guardians had advanced, which in turn would have put Triston McKenzie in line to start Game 2 on normal rest. Civale had posted a 3.27 ERA during his final four regular-season starts, as he looked like a much sharper version of himself after coming off of the injured list for the third and final time compared to his nightmarish beginning to the 2022 season.

The drawback to Civale starting the game was that he hadn’t pitched since Oct. 5 aside from some extended side sessions, but he felt good in his pregame bullpen and in his sessions leading into Tuesday. His normal command just wasn’t there when the game started.

‘Obviously disappointed,’ Civale said. ‘Just didn’t have great command early on and didn’t last very long. It wasn’t a lack of effort. I just didn’t have great control. A four-pitch walk to start the game, hit (Anthony) Rizzo and then just left a cutter a little bit up and (Giancarlo) Stanton got up to it and over the fence. Just didn’t have great command.’

‘It is what it is. We did our best to stay ready, throwing bullpens, throwing side sessions in between, throwing extended bullpen sessions. We did what we could with what the situation was and we made the most of it.’

The other option might have been a straight bullpen game, but in trying to leverage Emmanuel Clase, Trevor Stephan and James Karinchak, getting at least an inning or two out of a starter reduced the need for all of their relievers to be efficient and pitch longer than otherwise needed. The ideal scenario was for Civale to, perhaps, get through the order once in two-plus innings before handing it off to those three, Sam Hentges and Co.

In the end, the Guardians chose to protect Bieber’s health following an injury-shortened 2021 season and a 2022 that he spent re-adjusting his mechanics and give the ball to Civale after he had looked much better than in September.

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