Something pretty amazing happened yesterday. The Cleveland Guardians beat the Texas RAngers, 10-4, and clinched the American League Central division title. It’s Cleveland’s first division title since 2018, and it is a pretty amazing development because no one–except perhaps the Guardians themselves–thought they had even a remote chance of winning the division. Many pundits picked the Guardians to finish last, with a record below .500.
The reasoning of the baseball know-it-alls was easy to understand. During the off season, Cleveland didn’t really make any significant free agent signings or other big moves. Instead, the Guardians made the decision to give the kids in their farm system a chance, and came out of spring training with the youngest team in the majors and a roster filled with rookies. The Guardians’ management then wisely entrusted the team to the capable hands of Cleveland manager Terry (“Tito”) Francona–who has a rare talent for spotting a team’s strengths and playing baseball in a way that accentuates those strengths.
Francona recognized that the Guardians had a core of good starting pitching, and he has always been a wizard at putting together a good bullpen, fitting the pitchers into designated roles, and then employing the staff to minimize scoring by the opponent without exhausting and burning out his stars while building the bullpen’s collective confidence. Francona teams also traditionally play sound defense, to complement the pitching.
On offense, though, the challenge would be scoring runs. These Guardians don’t have players (other than stalwart Jose Ramirez) who bash home runs by the bushel. Instead, they developed into a team that, from rookie leadoff hitter Steven Kwan on down, plays a classic brand of small ball that emphasizes patience at the plate, stringing together singles, speed and theft on the basepaths, and constantly looking to put maximum pressure on the opposing defense. You’ll see an occasional home run, but what you’ll also see are Guardian players routinely going from first to third–and then perhaps scoring on an error due to a bad throw from an outfielder or catcher. It’s the kind of baseball that players like Tris Speaker or Honus Wagner from the early 1900s would have understood and appreciated.
Lately, as the Guardians have played their division rivals the Twins and the White Sox, the combination of pitching, speed, and stout defense has worked like a charm. The team has won 18 of its last 21 games and sprinted to the unexpected division title. And behind it all, Tito Francona must be feeling an immense sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in melding a young, rookie-filled roster into a pretty darned good team that seems to be peaking. Francona should win the American League manager of the year vote, hands down.
The playoffs loom ahead, and it will be interesting to see how the Guardians and their “small ball” approach fare against teams like the Astros, Rays, and Yankees, with rosters filled with well-known stars and lots of post-season experience. Cleveland has struggled against the better teams this year, in match-ups that came earlier this season. But regardless of how the playoffs come out, this year has been an amazing performance by an exuberant and energetic young team that is fun to watch, and their brilliant manager who has carefully put the pieces together to find a winning combination.
I’ll be rooting for them, as always. Go Guardians!