Cleveland Guardians answer another question, show they can handle the big stage
CLEVELAND – During a 92-70 season, the youngest team in baseball answered so many questions.
On Opening Day, the Guardians’ outfield was a cast of unknowns. Their search for a big bat that has seemingly lasted for decades went unfulfilled. For a time, their bullpen was better than their starting rotation. Seventeen rookies made their major league debuts.
This wasn’t supposed to be their time … not yet.
Then they recorded a league-high 29 victories in their last at-bat and matched a franchise record with 12 wins when they trailed after seven innings.
But the pressure of the postseason is a different animal. Tight games put an emphasis on stellar defense. Pitchers are thrust into new roles. National scrutiny is ramped up, even when given two 12:07 p.m. starting times that seemed to outsiders like another diss.
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With a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays Friday in Game 1 of an American League Wild Card Series, the young Guardians proved the moment was not too big for them.
In front of a loud and boisterous crowd of 30,741 at Progressive Field, the Guardians snapped an eight-game postseason losing streak dating back to Game 3 of the 2017 American League Division Series against the New York Yankees. They spoiled the Rays’ perfect record in wild card play that was 5-0 coming in.
They prevailed in a pitchers’ duel, immediately answering Jose Siri’s solo home run off right-hander Shane Bieber in the top of the sixth with a two-run blast by Jose Ramirez in the bottom of the inning off left-hander Shane McClanahan.
Guardians manager Terry Francona didn’t think what his team did was unexpected, but his players were proud of how they handled the big stage nonetheless.
“All the things we try to live by, they do, and hopefully that will carry us awhile longer,” Francona said. “I understand why we have to answer those questions because they haven't done it before. But it's not their fault. Some of them did it in Double-A and they actually won. But, I mean, it's just, they're just young.”
Shortstop Amed Rosario is a little over a month away from his 27th birthday and a grizzled veteran in this clubhouse. He was one of those who didn’t mind answering the questions again after another hurdle was cleared.
“I'm really happy and very proud with what they’ve done because they haven't changed the way we played the whole year, with the same intensity and same desire,” Rosario said through an interpreter. “I'm really happy with how they showed up today.”
Third baseman Ramirez, 30, who finished in the top three in AL MVP voting three times in a four-year span from 2017-20, is the Guardians’ leader. His exaggerated swagger represents their heart and soul. The playoffs may present new challenges, both mental and physical, but Ramirez is confident in himself and his teammates.
“I understand that's the messaging, but we have to remember that despite being young it's a very talented team. I feel with the talent we're very capable of competing with anybody,” he said.
The Guardians host the three-game wild card series, with Triston McKenzie opposing Tyler Glasnow, making his third start of the season after Tommy John surgery, in Saturday’s Game 2. If needed, Game 3 is set for 4:07 p.m. Sunday, barring potential sweeps in other series.
The winner will face the New York Yankees (99-63) in the American League Division Series.
None of the Guardians are looking ahead. But they showed Friday that the same belief in each other that carried them through the regular season is still there, answered the question of whether the big stage is too big for them.
“Yeah, I think we'll continue to do so,” 2020 AL Cy Young winner Bieber said. “I guess there will always be questions of that no matter what stage you're in.
“It's just important for us to stay ourselves, stay within ourselves, trust in each other. Just continue to get the job done.”
Left fielder Steven Kwan, one of the 17 rookies who made their debuts, said the youngsters had “a lot of good vets” who prepared them for what lies ahead in the playoffs.
“[They] kind of cautioned us and just led us along the way, knowing that this isn’t anything crazy, we’ve played a lot of baseball already, so this is nothing special,” Kwan said. “The game might speed up on you. Just take a deep breath, work through it and good things will happen.”
There may be a lot of deep breaths if the Guardians reach Yankee Stadium. But the next step in the storybook journey continued Friday as they forged ahead, answering one big question at a time.