How the guards dominated the AL Central team race

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

Francona has asked the extremely talented Ramirez to play simply and with passion throughout next season because the Guardian was not exactly created to come back after the season.

“I told him, ‘This is the way we have to play, everyone follows your lead,'” Francona recalls sitting in the visitor’s bunker at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago earlier this week. “And I said, ‘If you don’t, I can’t ask a group of young people to do it.'”

Ramirez was already known by his teammates for playing ‘with his hair on fire’ and they followed suit, specializing in a type of baseball built around contact, managing rules and playing unusual defense in 2022.

The results were near-historic for a roster of players with an average age of just 26. The Guardians are on their way to becoming the youngest team in the era of wild cards to not only make the post-season but also win the division.

“I don’t know if you can determine an age to compete,” Francona said.

And even before the team proved anything this season, the Cleveland officers knew one thing about their team in 2022: It was full of opportunities for a group of talented young players.

“We’ve made some deliberate choices, even going back out of the season, to give some of these young players opportunities to get out and contribute,” said Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations. “To their credit, many of them have stepped forward and made a meaningful impact.”

But as Francona says, no one has a “crystal ball” and it has pooled faster than anyone expected. Probably with the exception of the Guardians star himself.

“These guys are very talented,” Ramirez said through the team’s interpreter. “They have won a lot in the minors so they know how to win. I am not surprised by their performance this year.”

Second baseman Andres Jimenez, shortstop Amed Rosario and left baseman Stephen Cowan are three of those players who became major contributors at a young age.

The two players came to Cleveland together in a successful deal for Francisco Lindor, while Kwan was little known in the fifth round in 2018. Fewer times than any team in the majors.

“It’s refreshing to see that kind of baseball,” Kwan said. It starts with Tito [Francona]. He felt that if we had the chance, we had to play the game the right way. We take that very seriously.”

Cowan called Francona “the goat” for his management style. One of the best traits of the 63-year-old veteran manager, according to those who know him best, is his ability to adapt a team to maximize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.

Young guards learned to win baseball while dealing with a long season. It is not an easy task and Francona urged it when the moment called for it. Kwan remembered once after his victory over Minnesota.

“He called me into his office, which he doesn’t usually do,” Kwan said. “He took a video and he was a sprinter at the start and I hit one hit on the right. The runner goes from first to third and the right runner is cruising with the ball and I’m standing first.

“He asks me why I didn’t get second base? I told him I haven’t been injured in a while, and I was glad to be there. He would say ‘No baby, that’s not what we are’ about. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it the right way.”

“This stayed with me.”

Mixed with those teachable moments, the Cleveland club was filled with lively celebrations fueled by a handful of dramatic victories, including several huge wins from the back and extra affairs. Perhaps none of them defined Cleveland’s season better than the thriller released in early May when the Guardians used the ninth round of six runs to advance even with the White Sox 8-8 before finishing 11 of the three-run deal. Josh Naylor hit emotionally in both rounds and proved to the youngsters in Cleveland that they can go toe-to-toe with a Major League winner.

Those kinds of wins are starting to pile up, including a 15-game win last Saturday over Minnesota and another 11 on Tuesday in Chicago. In fact, the Guardians beat their division rivals during the entire season, piling 24-13 against their nearest rival and 12-4 in overtime overall.

“Everyone says we’re not supposed to do this,” said junior Shane Pepper. “And that story might have been coming sooner. But not now. It’s a different brand of baseball, and we enjoy playing it, and we do it really well.”

Bieber smiled and nodded when Ramirez’s name appeared. Clubhouse conversations often lead to the Five Tools trigger.

“What I find special and invaluable is the way he plays the game,” Bieber said. “It’s hard to describe in words. For our star to play the way he plays, with that infectious energy, putting his body to the test and doing it every day, with the intent of winning, is really setting the tone.”

Ramirez is a first-to-third machine, which is another way he sums up the Guardians’ unique baseball brand. In their just-completed series against the White Sox, Cleveland basically knocked them out of the division title contention.

“It can be a bit frustrating for our opponents and when you have a lot of young people watching it [Ramirez] Hustle like that, they think, “Why can’t I do that?” Bieber said.

They can and they have. Not surprisingly, The Guardians lead the league in going from first to third in a single game. It’s just one feature that got them gearing up for their October tour. Cleveland has five players with 15 or more bases stolen, the biggest in baseball and the most in the franchise since 1919.

“They are young, but they have not held back from the challenges,” Francona said. “All the things we’ve tried to live by, they’re trying to do.”

Shaw believes the foundation was built years ago while Cleveland was going through its last window of competition. That included appearing at the World Championships in 2016. Many of the current players were in the palace or entering the organization at the time – and now are on the cusp of their first chance to play in the post-season.

“Tito has been on top of the race the whole race,” Shaw said. “We were winning and everyone saw how it was done. Now it’s happening again.”

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