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Inside the Guardians Improbable Run to the Division Title

Photo: Bally Sports Cleveland

The busses were being loaded up to head from Goodyear, Ariz. to Kansas City, Mo. to open the 2022 season after a chaotic, shortened spring training after the lockout. Rumors were swirling around Jose Ramirez, and where he could possibly be dealt after the team failed to complete a contract extension for their star third baseman. Jose was having none of it. He marched right back into that office at Chase Field and demanded they get an extension done before heading out of Arizona. it got done. It also set the tone for one of the most impressive seasons I have seen in my lifetime.

​This Jose extension was imperative because the fanbase was divided and in shambles after a 100-day lockout, a name change and coping with the fact the front office made no major moves in the offseason despite reiterating they had financial flexibility. Apathy was at an all time high in the fanbase, and the national media was no exception. No one was buying high on the Guardians.

Fangraphs gave the Guards an eight% chance to win the division. Despite the outside noise, the players were not listening. All season long, Terry Francona has had this team focusing on what they can do, not on what they can’t do. The organization committed to making 2022 a year to focus on the internal options and player development. This led to the Guardians opening the season with the youngest roster in all of Major League Baseball at an average age of just 26.6 years old.

I was one of the fans disappointed no moves were made in the offseason or at the trade deadline. At a payroll of only $66 million, I was hoping for a right-handed power bat or another starting pitcher. I give Chris Antonetti and company credit for not panicking and making a deal just to make one. Sources have said the team was close to moving Zach Plesac but could not quite pull off the potential three-team deal. Instead of forcing a square peg in a round hole, he kept the team intact. There were still more internal options that deserved a look.

The Guardians have had 16 guys make their major league debuts this season. Almost all of these 16 guys have contributed to this division championship. One of the biggest contributors has been Steven Kwan.

I followed Steven Kwan through the minor leagues, so I knew the kid was going to be special. Most fans never heard of him, and Francona even said he probably wouldn’t play every day. He forced his way into the everyday lineup as the starting left fielder, and he has not looked back since. He even became the leadoff hitter, sporting a near .300 average all year long, rookie of the month twice, and player of the week for the week of Sept. 19. He is also among the lead leaders in defensive runs saved in left field, which is no surprise to anyone, as he has made the jaw-dropping catches look routine.

Oscar Gonzalez has captivated the fanbase with his Spongebob walkup song and power bursts, Tyler Freeman has become an outstanding utility guy, Will Benson has made spectacular catches in the outfield, and Will Brennan has recently came up and continued his tremendous offensive season. On the pitching side, rookies like Konnor Pilkington, Cody Morris and Kirk McCarty have came up huge due to injuries and weather induced doubleheaders.

​These rookies have been mixed with “veterans” who are just slightly older than these rookies. Jose Ramirez is the perennial MVP candidate, Amed Rosario changes the complexion of this lineup when he is hot, and how can you not get hyped up watching Josh Naylor return from the horrific 2021 leg injury and single handedly own the AL Central. For reference, Naylor has hit .283 against the division with 12 of his 19 homers and 41 RBI's. Austin Hedges has also done a tremendous job handling this pitching staff.

Who saw this season from Andres Gimenez coming this soon? Last season, Gimenez hit .218 with five homeruns and 16 runs batted in. This season, Gimenez is hitting .303 with 17 dingers and 68 RBI's. He is leading AL second basemen in wins above replacement (WAR) at 6.9 and is second in defensive runs saved. The starting second baseman in the All-Star Game is likely going to win the gold glove and a silver slugger. Not bad for a 24-year-old who will only get better.

The team felt some early adversity in April. They were still playing guys like Bobby Bradley, Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer and Yu Chang before shipping them out of town, so the "kids" could play. Said kids had some growing pains, and the team lost seven straight in New York and Anaheim. That kind of stretch without winning a lot of games could quickly turn into a downward spiral for most young teams but not Tito’s group.

Their bounce back game has been strong all season long. Even recently in late August, the Guardians looked totally overmatched against Seattle in two series' and scuffled against Baltimore as the offense went ice cold. They quickly righted the ship and after losing four straight to open the month of September, they are currently sitting at 19-6 for the month. Since September 8th, they are 16-2 over 17 days, including two extra inning victories. They demoralized the Twins, then went on to smack the White Sox in the mouth, completing a 7-1 in those 8 games. They took the AL Central on the field the way it should be.

Josh Naylor single handedly shifted momentum in the May 9th game in Chicago. Guardians were down four in the 9th inning. Naylor proceeds to hit a grand slam off White Sox closer Liam Hendricks and then won the game with a three-run bomb in the 11th inning. That helped show this team they were never out of any game. The season was filled with Josh Naylor walk off home runs and head butts to the manager. This team has wanted all the smoke all year long.

At the end of the day on September 18th, the magic number for the Guardians to clinch the AL Central was 13 as the team was getting ready to head out on the road to Chicago and Texas. They managed to clinch the division exactly one week later. I literally shed tears when Luke Maile caught the final out in a 10-2 routing of Texas to clinch, a game in which Steven Kwan hit a grand slam. In a year when opposing fan bases say we play a “disgusting brand of baseball”, it is only fitting Kwan put the champagne on ice with a grand slam on a team that has not hit for much power all season long.

Festivities in the locker room included lots of alcohol, cigars, music, and... pizza? Chants of “(expletive) the white sox” could be heard emanating through the plastic covering all the lockers. Tito held a meeting with the team before the game Sunday and told the guys, “When this happens, you deserve to blow it out!"

Winning is hard, despite this team making it look easy. It is a scene I never could have imagined in my wildest predictions for this season. I am known as an optimistic Guardians fan, and even I had them at 85-77 before the season started.

This team has brought me so much joy and happiness to my life this summer. It is easy to get behind a team that has a blast, plays hard, and plays for each other. They are constantly picking up the guy in front of them and playing the game the right way. This may be one of Terry Francona’s most impressive seasons ever.

This came together a year or two before anyone could have expected. This team is not satisfied. They want more. They want to bring a championship to the city of Cleveland. In my opinion, they are going to be the toughest competition for the Astros in the American League.

Their bullpen has been the best in baseball in the second half of the season, their starters are all locked in, they do not strike out, and they are even hitting for power. This team will not beat themselves. No one wants to face them for that reason. They are not going to be easy outs, and they make all the defensive plays.

We are welcoming all fans back to the bandwagon. If you are not paying attention to this team, I suggest you start now. Sit back and enjoy the ride. It is going to be a fun month of playoff baseball in the the CLE.

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