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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Payroll aside, Cleveland has no shortage of leadership

Manager Terry Francona returned to the bench this season after missing a great deal of time as a result of health problems. He has guided young players like Amed Rosario, left, and Steven Kwan to a division series.

It has been the most remarkable decade of excellence in recent baseball history. In the 10 seasons that Terry Francona has managed in Cleveland — in Cleveland, remember — his teams have always been good.

“Since Tito’s been here,” said Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations for the Guardians, using Francona’s nickname, “we’ve only played 19 games in which we weren’t secured a playoff spot or in contention for one, and most of those actually were 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 that, and Cleveland has gone without a World Series title since 1948, longer than every other team that was playing then. But nine out of 10 seasons with a winning record — the exception: an 80-82 stumble in 2021 — is astounding for a low-payroll team.

It’s no fun to talk about money in October; there will be plenty of time for that in the winter. But it’s hard to ignore the disparity between the Guardians and the New York Yankees, who took the opener of the teams’ best-of-five division series, 4-1, on Tuesday in the Bronx. Game 2 was rescheduled for Friday at Yankee Stadium (1:07 p.m. ET, TBS) after Thursday night’s game was rained out.

The Yankees’ opening day payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, was about $246 million. The Guardians’ was about $68 million — or the combined salaries of Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton in 2023.

So, yes, it’s not a fair fight. Cole gave the Yankees what they paid for in Game 1, spinning tight sliders and curves below the strike zone, mixing more change-ups late in the game, and leaving only eight outs for the Yankees’ patchwork bullpen.

“He can have overwhelming stuff,” Francona said. “He starts to speed you up and then he spins it. It can get tough.”

The Guardians — baseball’s youngest team — play with a throwback style that is fun to watch when it works. They steal bases. They put the ball in play. They don’t hit a lot of homers yet still score more runs than the average team.

“Getting the next guy up, walks, taking advantage of errors, running counts up, taking first to third, I think that’s when we’re at our best,” said left fielder Steven Kwan, Cleveland’s rookie leadoff hitter. “It’s getting contributions from everybody, it’s not just live and die by the long ball. When we can get that going, I think we’re a very good team.”

They are, but the Guardians also play in the American League Central, where only one non-Cleveland pitcher (Dylan Cease of the Chicago White Sox) worked the required 162 innings to qualify for the ERA title. Playoff pitching has scrambled their strategy.

Cleveland swept the Tampa Bay Rays in a two-game wild-card series by scoring three total runs to the Rays’ one. The runs scored on a two-run homer by José Ramírez in Game 1 and a series-clinching blast by Oscar González in the 15th inning of Game 2. On Tuesday, Kwan homered off Cole for the Guardians’ only run.

The Guardians ranked 29th in the majors in homers, ahead of only the Detroit Tigers. Yet going into Thursday’s game they had been unable to score any other way in the postseason. They had the fewest strikeouts of any offense this season, yet have fanned 35 times in three games against the Rays and the Yankees.

Pitching saved the Guardians in the last round, and it remains their best hope. Shane Bieber, who is slotted to start Game 2 on Friday, is about as good as there is. Bieber has a 2.91 ERA over the past four seasons, second only to Max Scherzer among pitchers with at least 90 starts in that time. The Yankees have not faced him since April 2021.

“Shane’s a special one,” catcher Austin Hedges said. “He just has special stuff. He gets swings on pitches that you don’t really see from many guys. He’s got a large pitch repertoire and he can use any of them at any time.”

Bieber, the 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner, will try to keep the Yankees guessing — few starters throw more off-speed pitches — and give Cleveland its best chance to make this series competitive. The Guardians would be encouraged to head home with a split, because Triston McKenzie, one of the majors’ hottest pitchers down the stretch, is set to start Game 3. He held the Yankees to one hit in seven shutout innings in July.

Bieber and McKenzie were drafted and developed by Cleveland, like Ramírez, the team’s do-it-all third baseman. Antonetti and his staff have shrewdly filled in around them, never giving in to the protracted rebuilding projects of other teams in Cleveland’s payroll district.

In three separate trades from December 2019 through January 2021, the Guardians collected five high-impact players: second baseman Andrés Giménez, shortstop Amed Rosario, first baseman Josh Naylor, starter Cal Quantrill and closer 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 this April.

“We have an understanding of what our challenges are, and what we seek 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 give ourselves to get to the postseason, the better chances we have to win the World Series, which is all of our goals.”

This is the sixth postseason for Francona, 63, in his decade with Cleveland. He has been battered by physical problems — three surgeries for blood clotting in 2020, and hip and foot surgeries in 2021 — but has kept returning.

“I probably wouldn’t be working if it wasn’t for the people that I work for — I respect them and enjoy them and I know what they do,” he said. “They do a really good job of explaining to me, like coming into this year: ‘Hey, this is kind of where we’re at.’ It gives me a chance to adapt and then talk to the coaches so we stay on line and keep our direction, however you want to say it. They are the best. They are the best people you could ever work for.”

The Guardians have a narrow pathway to squeeze past the Yankees and into the AL Championship, but if anyone can guide them there, it is Francona. His contract expires after the postseason, but the job is his for as long as he wants it — and there is no place he would rather be.

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