It was the most remarkable decade of excellence in recent baseball history. In the 10 seasons that Terry Francona led in Cleveland – in Clevelandremember — his teams have always been good.
“In the time Tito has been here,” said Chris Antonetti, the president of baseball operations for the Guardians, using the nickname Francona, “we’ve only played 19 games in which we didn’t get a berth. playoffs or vying for one and most of those were actually last year so before last year we were in the single digits literally the whole time he was here , where we weren’t playing meaningful games.
Teams don’t raise banners for it, and Cleveland has gone without a World Series title since 1948, longer than any other team playing then. But nine of 10 seasons with a winning record — the exception: an 80-82 stumble in 2021 — is staggering for a low-wage team.
The Yankees’ Opening Day payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, was about $246 million. The Guardians were worth around $68 million – the combined salaries of Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton in 2023.
So yeah, it’s not a fair fight. Cole gave the Yankees what they paid for in Game 1, spinning tight sliders and curves under the strike zone, mixing in more late-game changes and leaving just eight outs for the patchwork bullpen. Yankees.
“He can have some overwhelming stuff,” Francona said. “He starts accelerating you, then he spins it. It can get difficult.
The Guardians – baseball’s youngest team – play with a retro style that’s fun to watch when it works. They steal bases. They put the ball in play. They don’t hit many homers but still score more runs than the average team.
“Getting the next guy up, walking, taking advantage of mistakes, running counts, going from first to third, I think that’s where we’re at our best,” said left fielder Steven Kwan, the first rookie hitter in Cleveland. “He gets contributions from everyone, it’s not just about living and dying in the long run. When we can get that going, I think we’re a really good team.
They are, but the Guardians also play in American League Central, where only one non-Cleveland pitcher (Dylan Cease of the Chicago White Sox) has worked the 162 innings required to qualify for the ERA title. The playoff run scrambled their strategy.
Cleveland swept Tampa Bay in a two-game wildcard series scoring three total runs against the Rays. Runs scored on a two-run homer by José Ramírez in Game 1 and a series-deciding outburst by Oscar Gonzalez in the 15th inning of Game 2. On Tuesday, Kwan hit Cole for the Guardians’ lone run.
The Guardians ranked 29th in the majors in homers, ahead of only the Detroit Tigers. Still, they haven’t been able to score any other way so far in the playoffs. They had the fewest strikeouts of any offense this season, but stoked 35 times in three games against the Rays and Yankees.
Pitching saved the Guardians in the final round, and it remains their best hope. Shane Bieber, who starts Game 2 on Thursday, is about as good as it gets. Bieber has a 2.91 ERA over the past four seasons, second only to Max Scherzer among pitchers with at least 90 starts over that span. The Yankees haven’t faced him since April 2021.
“Shane is special,” catcher Austin Hedges said. “He just has some special stuff. He gets swings on pitches that you don’t really see in a lot of guys. He has a wide repertoire of heights and he can use any of them at any time.
Bieber, the 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner, will keep the Yankees guessing — few starters throw more off-speed pitches — and give Cleveland its best shot at making this series competitive. The Guardians would be encouraged to go home with a split as Triston McKenzie, one of the Majors’ hottest pitchers on the stretch, starts Game 3. He limited the Yankees to one hit in seven innings of laundry in July.
Bieber and McKenzie were drafted and developed by Cleveland, like Ramírez, the team’s versatile third baseman. Antonetti and his team skilfully inquired around, never giving in to the protracted rebuilding projects of other Cleveland payroll district teams.
In three separate trades from December 2019 to January 2021, the Guardians brought together five high-impact players: second baseman Andrés Giménez, shortstop Amed Rosario, first baseman Josh Naylor, starter Cal Quantrill and closest Emmanuel Clase.
They traded starters Corey Kluber (to Texas) and Mike Clevinger (to San Diego) and shortstop Francisco Lindor (to the Mets) in those trades and saved a lot of money in the process, helping them sign Ramírez to a club-record seven-year, $141 million contract extension in April.
“We understand what our challenges are, and what we’re looking to do is find a way to overcome them and build winning teams,” Antonetti said. “The more consistently we can do that, the more chances we have of getting to the playoffs, the better our chances of winning the World Series, which is our whole goal.”
This is the sixth postseason for Francona, 63, in his decade with Cleveland. He was beaten by physical issues – three blood clotting surgeries in 2020 and hip and foot surgeries in 2021 – but kept coming back.
“I probably wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the people I work for – I respect and appreciate them and know what they’re doing,” he said. “They do a really good job of explaining to me, like coming in this year, ‘Hey, that’s kind of where we’re at.’ It gives me a chance to adapt and then talk to the coaches so that we stay in line and keep our direction, as you mean. They’re the best. They’re the best people you could ever work for.
The Guardians have a narrow path to past the Yankees and into the AL Championship Series, but if anyone can guide them there, it’s Francona. His contract expires after the playoffs, but the job is his for as long as he wants — and there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
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