How the Guardians Controlled the AL Central Division Race

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On the first day of spring training, Terry Francona called a meeting with Jose Ramirez. That conversation between a manager and his star third baseman in March would set the tone for the youngest team in baseball’s surprising success — the Cleveland Guardians, who were on the verge of winning the American League Central.

Francona asked the ultra-talented Ramirez to play hard and with passion throughout the upcoming season, as the Guardians are not exactly set up heading into the postseason.

“I told him, ‘This is how we have to play, everybody follows your lead,'” Francona recalled while sitting in the spectators’ dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago earlier this week. “And I said, ‘If you don’t do it, I can’t ask a bunch of young people to do it.'”

Ramirez was already known by his teammates to play ‘with his hair on fire’ and they followed suit, specializing in a brand of baseball built around contact, running the bases and playing a different defense in 2022.

The results for a roster of players with an average age of just 26 are close to historic. The Guardians are on track to become the youngest team in the Wild Card era to not only make the postseason but also win a division.

“I don’t know if you can put an age on the competition,” Francona said.

Even before the team proves anything this season, Cleveland’s brass knows one thing about its team heading into 2022: It’s going to be a full opportunity for a group of talented young players.

“We made some deliberate choices, going back to the offseason, to give some of these young players opportunities to go out and contribute,” president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. “Many of them have stepped up and made a meaningful impact.”

But as Francona says, no one has a ‘crystal ball’ and it came together faster than anyone expected. Except maybe the Guardians star player himself.

“Those guys are very talented,” Ramirez said through a team translator. “They’ve won a lot in the minors, so they know how to win. I’m not surprised by their performance this year.”

Second baseman Andres Gimenez, shortstop Amed Rosario and left fielder Steven Kwan are three of those players who have become key contributors at a young age.

The two infielders came to Cleveland together in a blockbuster trade for Francisco Lindor, while Guan was a little-known fifth-round pick in 2018. Batting leadoff, Kwan set the record for a streak that ranks 29th in home runs, but also hits. Fewer times than any team in the majors.

“It’s refreshing to see that kind of baseball,” Quan said. “It starts with Tito [Francona], he thought he would play the game the right way if he got the chance. We took that to heart.”

Guan called Francona the “GOAT” for his management style. One of the 63-year-old veteran manager’s best qualities, according to those who know him well, is his ability to adapt a team to maximize its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.

The young Guardians learned winning baseball while dealing with the grind of a long season. It wasn’t an easy task, and Francona was motivated when the moment came. Quan recalled a time after the win against Minnesota.

“He called me into his office, which he doesn’t usually do,” Quan said. “He takes a video and it’s a runner on first and I hit a single.

“He was asking me why I didn’t take second base, and I told him I didn’t have a hit, I got to first, and I was happy to be there. He was like, ‘No kid, that’s not us.’ If we’re going to do this, We’re going to do it the right way.

“It stayed with me.”

Mixed in with those teachable moments, Cleveland’s clubhouse was filled with spirited celebrations fueled by a handful of dramatic wins, including several big hits and extra-inning affairs. None defined Cleveland’s season better than an early thriller in May, when the Guardians rallied in a 6-run ninth to pull past the White Sox 8-8 before clinching a three-run 11th. A spirited Josh Naylor scored runs in both innings and proved to the youngsters in Cleveland that they can go toe-to-toe with the reigning division winner.

Those kinds of wins have started to pile up, including a 15-inning win against Minnesota last Saturday and another 11-inning win at Chicago on Tuesday. In fact, the Guardians outscored their division rivals the entire season, going 24-13 against their closest rivals and 12-4 in extra innings.

“Everybody says we shouldn’t do this,” starter Shane Bieber said. “Maybe that was the story early on. But not now. It’s a different brand of baseball and we enjoy playing it and we do it well.”

Bieber smiled and shook his head when Ramirez’s name came up. Clubhouse conversations often turn to the five-tool player.

“What I find so special and so precious about him is the way he plays the game,” Bieber said. “It’s hard to put into words. Our superstar really sets the tone the way he plays, with that infectious energy, putting his body on the line, doing it every day and wanting to win.”

Ramirez is a first-to-third machine, another way he sums up the Guardians’ unique brand of baseball. In their just-concluded series against the White Sox, Cleveland essentially eliminated them from division title contention.

“It can be a bit frustrating for our opponents, and with a lot of young guys watching him [Ramirez] To be buzzing like that, they’re thinking, ‘Why can’t I do that?'” Bieber said.

They can and they have. No wonder the Guardians are going from top to third in the league. It was a trait that prepared them for the October run. Cleveland has five players with 15 or more stolen bases, the most in baseball and the most by a franchise since 1919.

“They are young but they don’t back down from challenges,” Francona said. “All the things we’ve tried to live by, they’re trying to do it.”

Shaw believes the foundation was laid years ago when Cleveland was going through its last window. This includes an appearance in the 2016 World Series. Many current players were in the minors or entered the organization at the time — and are now on the verge of getting their first chance to play in the postseason.

“Tito led the entire run,” Shaw said. “We won and everyone saw how it ended. Now it’s happening again.”

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