CLEVELAND -- The Guardians knew they needed to find a way to win Saturday night.
The team had nine innings under its belt before the first pitch of what became a near five-and-a-half hour, 15-inning marathon in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Twins. Cleveland had a five-run lead heading into the eighth, before Minnesota rallied to tie it up and force extra innings. But thanks to a combined effort from Kirk McCarty, who kept the Guardians alive in the last three frames, and Amed Rosario, who pushed across the winning run, Cleveland came out on top, 7-6.
With the twin-bill sweep, the Guardians stretched their lead atop the AL Central to 4 1/2 games over the White Sox and seven ahead of Minnesota with 17 left to play for Cleveland.
Every game is important when the calendar reaches mid-September. But this one seemed even more critical for the Guardians to win. The goal of the day was to try to utilize the pitching staff as efficiently as possible, looking to keep the bullpen fresh for a difficult stretch that doesn’t end until Sept. 26, when the team will finally enjoy a day off.
All the dominoes were lining up perfectly. Shane Bieber ate up eight innings in the matinee and Emmanuel Clase handled the ninth (making him unavailable for the nightcap). Konnor Pilkington held the Twins hitless for 5 2/3 scoreless frames in the nightcap, but as the bullpen uncharacteristically wavered after Pilkington’s departure, suddenly the Guardians found themselves going through arms.
“He saved our bacon,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said, of McCarty. “I mean, he pitched, competed. It made a potentially really frustrating ending into a good night.”
While McCarty kept the Guardians in the game for as long as was necessary, Rosario did everything and more to bring a much-needed spark to the offense. Following his four-hit performance earlier in the afternoon, Rosario put together another four-hit game in the evening, joining Earl Averill (1933) and Nap Lajoie (1910) to become the third Cleveland player to have two four-hit games on the same day.
“Thank goodness,” Francona said, with a smirk. “We might still be playing [if Rosario hadn’t done that].”
There was no one better to have at the plate in the bottom of the 15th with two outs and runners on the corners. Rosario didn’t pick up his fifth hit of the night in his final at-bat, but he hit a hard ground ball to shortstop Jermaine Palacios, who muffed the play, allowing Austin Hedges to score from third easily and end the team’s longest game (by innings) since a 16-inning affair on April 18, 2018 at Minnesota.
When the Guardians realized they needed to empty the available players on their lineup card in order to finish Saturday night’s game, a win became even more crucial, considering the bullpen could be in rough shape heading into Sunday. The team didn’t use Carlos Vargas (who has yet to make his Major League debut), but everyone else in the ‘pen recorded at least one out on Saturday. And with Cody Morris, who isn’t completely stretched out, starting on Sunday, the Guardians will need to figure out a way to get through all nine innings. But if everyone isn’t the freshest after Saturday night’s marathon, the win makes it a little easier to stomach.
Now, the team has to determine how to keep its pitching staff in the best shape. Will some relievers be able to bounce back to pitch in the fourth game of this five-game series? Will a move need to be made to bring a rested arm to the 'pen as an extra option? Who will need to be optioned or designated for assignment to clear space on the active roster?
“We’re trying desperately not to [make a move],” Francona said. “Just because of the way guys competed and the feeling as a team. But we’ve got to make sure we can finish the game.”
If the Guardians think a move is necessary to get through Sunday’s contest, McCarty would be one of the options to designate for assignment, given the team’s needs. But Cleveland hasn’t made that determination yet. For now, McCarty is focused on his performance in the doubleheader, allowing himself to realize how much fun it was to be a part of.
“Those are the moments you dream of,” McCarty said. “That was super special.”