University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor(s): Matt Foulds, Molly Klaisner
How far can the Guardians make it this postseason?
How far can the Guardians make it this postseason?
The stage was set.
Saturday, October 8th.
Bottom of the 15th inning.
The SpongeBob SquarePants theme song blaring through the gargantuan loudspeakers of Progressive Field.
Oscar Gonzalez delivered. On a 1-0 count, Gonzalez launched a baseball off of former Cleveland baseball legend Corey Kluber that traveled 410 feet into the left field stands, vaulting the Cleveland Guardians past the first round of the playoffs and into the American League Divisional Series.
Nobody expected the Guardians to even make this year's playoffs, let alone advance past the first round. With an average age of just over 26 years old, Cleveland boasts the youngest roster in Major League Baseball. Seventeen players made their major league debuts for the Guardians throughout this season. Several analysts predicted that the Guardians would be lucky to even win half of their games.
Well, it appears they were lucky.
A perfect storm of events propelled the Guardians to this year's playoffs. The arrival of rookies like Gonzalez and fellow outfielder Steven Kwan certainly helped, as did the breakout seasons by some of the team's more tenured players, such as Andrés Giménez and Josh Naylor. A late season surge saw the Guardians go 24-6 in the final month of the season, while the longtime division-leading Minnesota Twins collapsed. Oh, and there was the Chicago White Sox, everybody's World Series prediction back in March that never seemed to escape its initial slump. After everyone wrote them off, the Guardians clawed their way back to the playoffs for the first time since 2020.
And the journey has not stopped there.
Thanks to masterful pitching performances by Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie, and clutch home runs from Gonzalez and Jose Ramirez, the Guardians swept the Tampa Bay Rays in this weekend's Wild Card round and are set to open a best-of-five series this Tuesday in the Bronx against the villainous New York Yankees. Should Cleveland emerge victorious, it would either play the Seattle Mariners or the Houston Astros in the third round. A series win there would punch the team's ticket to the 2022 World Series.
Cleveland is certainly capable of making an unlikely run to the World Series, as fans remember from 2016. However, Cleveland fans are just as accustomed to loss, and the Guardians could choke the season away just as they're on the verge of advancing. Here are some of the key factors that will determine how far the Guardians go this postseason.
- Continued Stellar Pitching
Perhaps the most significant factor in the Guardians' success against the Rays was the lights-out pitching through both games. On Friday afternoon, Shane Bieber was nearly impeccable in what may have been the best start of his career, going strong for 7.2 innings with eight strikeouts, a mere three hits allowed, and his only earned run coming off a solo shot by Jose Siri in the sixth inning. The next day, Triston McKenzie pitched six shoutout innings, throwing eight strikeouts and only permitting two hits in a statement performance for his young career.
The Guardians' relief pitchers also showed out this weekend, not giving up a single run between them all. Emmanuel Clase got things started for the bullpen Friday afternoon, coming to the mound in the 8th inning to try and finish off Bieber's masterpiece. That he did, closing out the final inning without allowing a single hit. On Saturday, nearly the entire bullpen saw some action in the fifteen-inning thriller. However, young left-hander Sam Hentges stood out among them all, pitching the final three grueling innings while striking out six and only letting up three hits. His work was crucial to the success on the pitching side.
The Guardians pitching staff will need to carry this momentum into the Yankees series and beyond for Cleveland to stand a fighting chance. Cal Quantrill, who posted a solid 3.38 earned run average through 32 games this season, will get the start for Game 1. He will be followed by Bieber in Game 2 and McKenzie in Game 3. Look for the bullpen to come in to get the team out of tight jams and to close out games in high-pressure situations. If the pitchers can weather the Aaron Judge storm and stymie his cronies, such as Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton, Cleveland could be well on its way to the American League Championship Series.
- More Urgency from the Offense
The Guardians offense was virtually nonexistent during the Wild Card series, aside from two late-game home runs that boosted them to victory. The team made a lot of weak contact throughout both games, both in the air and on ground balls. They also left a ton of men stranded on base, including an egregious screw-up in Game 2 in which they had the bases loaded with zero outs and failed to capitalize. To put it bluntly, the Guardians offense was bailed out by the incredible pitching performances put on by their teammates.
The Guardians' inability to produce runs against the Rays is alarming, especially going into a series against a team as formidable as the Yankees. Yes, the Rays sent out amazing pitchers in breakout rookie Shane McClanahan and former Cy Young Award recipient Tyler Glasnow. Nobody expected the Guardians to put up ten runs. However, the Guardians are now set to face a pitching staff that is arguably even more daunting. The Yankees' rotation is headlined by All Stars Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino. Nestor Cortes, who revived his career this season with a 2.44 ERA, will also likely see action against the Guardians' offense. The Cleveland pitching can hold its own against New York's mammoth hitters, but the offense will need to find ways to manufacture runs for the team to win.
The Guardians should not and cannot rely on home runs to propel them past the Yankees. Aside from Ramirez and Gonzalez, nobody on the team can hit for consistent power. Cleveland hit 127 home runs as a team this year, which was only higher than the Detroit Tigers. For reference, the Yankees doubled that total, leading the league with 254. The Guardians will need to stick to the style of play that got them to the playoffs in the first place—solid contact and smart baserunning.
Despite a relative dearth of home runs, the Guardians placed sixth in the MLB in total hits (1410), and seventh for team batting average (.254). Ramirez and Andrés Giménez headline an intimidating group of hitters that excel at making contact for base hits and manipulating the strike zone to draw walks. Simply put, the Guardians get on base, and they do so more than most other teams. Furthermore, when they do get on base, they are a force to be reckoned with. As a team, they stole 119 bases throughout 2022, the most of any team still in postseason contention. Speedsters like Kwan and Myles Straw keep opposing defenses on their toes and tend to snag an extra base that an average runner is simply not quick enough to take. If the Guardians play to their offensive strengths against the Yankees, they can more than make up for their lack of power and take New York by surprise.
The Guardians have quite the challenge ahead of them, but they have the skills necessary to compete with the Yankees and some of the other challenging matchups they could encounter if they advance. Cleveland begins what is shaping up to be a thrilling series against New York on Tuesday, with the first pitch at 7:37 PM EST.