ARLINGTON, Texas — A sturdy pair of goggles was mandatory attire Sunday at the Cleveland clubhouse, where impromptu showers of champagne and beer erupted in a thick haze of cigar smoke.
The Guardians, baseball’s youngest team, have completed an unexpected run to the top of AL Central.
Rookie Steven Kwan hit a grand slam and had a season-high five points as the Guardians won a division championship no one thought possible six months ago with a 10-4 victory over the Texas Rangers.
When receiver Luke Maile pressed a foul on Josh Smith for the final, the Guardians began celebrating a title that became official 15 minutes earlier after second-placed Chicago lost to the Detroit Tigers.
Tied for first place on September 4, the Guardians have won seven straight and snatched 18 wins from 21 games to open a 10-game lead and run away with the division.
“This team is good. We’re not just young. We’re pretty good,” said starter Cal Quantrill, the club’s 14-win leader. “I don’t think anyone is thrilled to play us right now. We’re playing our best baseball. We’re playing baseball the right way.”
It’s Cleveland’s 11th central title since the division’s inception in 1994 and its fourth in 10 years under Terry Francona, who has battled health issues the past two seasons but enjoyed this race with a team that may have surprised at first but is now seen. as a legitimate threat to the World Series.
“For what our guys have done, and when you do it with people you absolutely care about, love and respect, it means a lot,” Francona said before his statement was cut off by a chilling sprinkling. .
“I’m amazed by these guys,” said Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations for the team. “They came together and played the game the right way.”
This season was not supposed to happen.
After dropping the Indians as a team name after the 2021 season, a move that upset a significant portion of Cleveland’s fan base, the Guardians haven’t done much to improve their roster in free agency as the front office has decided that 2022 will be all about seeing what it has.
In the end, the Cleveland kids were more than fine.
Perhaps none more so than Kwan, a 25-year-old player with a game well beyond his years. He made the roster in spring training and was the Guardians’ first pesky hitter since Opening Day, working pitchers into deep counts before hitting shots and becoming a nuisance on the pitches. base paths.
It was only fitting that it was Kwan who led the way in Sunday’s clinch.
“Help any team I was on, whether it was Triple-A or the majors,” Kwan said of his goals this season. “I think it helped me in college, on the travel ball, whatever. I know if I focus on helping the team and helping others, then everything will fall into place.”
Kwan’s slam in the eighth inning barely went over the wall and bounced back into the play. He wasn’t sure he was out until first base umpire Bruce Dreckman signaled it. He said his reaction was “breakdown”.
With bigger games to come, Kwan wasn’t ready to reflect on what he and his teammates have accomplished.
“I really want to keep my head down, keep rolling,” he said. “Perhaps in a superstitious way, I don’t want to turn away from anything. Keep it up.”
The Guardians defied odds early on and became the first team to win a division with at least 16 rookies making their major league debut.
The season started with low expectations everywhere but inside the Cleveland clubhouse. It may have been naivety, but the Guardians thought they could be special, and that’s exactly what happened.
“From day one they came together,” Antonetti said. “You go around the clubhouse, the tone that our veteran players set like José Ramírez, Amed Rosario, Shane Bieber, Austin Hedges. ‘Tito’ [Francona] just say find a way to help the team win.
“They’ve embraced that mentality.”
The Guardians did it with an offense that puts the ball in play, a solid and often spectacular defense and a bullpen extinguished by the closest Emmanuel Clase (39 saves, the best in the league).
Cleveland hits less than any team in the majors, and no one goes from first to third better.
Amid the clubhouse chaos, Antonetti was keen to credit 63-year-old Francona, who won two World Series with Boston and had perhaps his best season ever after facing serious medical issues.
“Think of what he personally overcame to get to this point,” Antonetti said. “It’s a special moment for Tito.”