CLEVELAND -- It’s hard to project what a young team like the Guardians -- consisting of a handful of unproven players -- can become this season. What we do know is this lineup can’t be counted out.
It’s been a series of hot and cold streaks to start the year, causing the most nauseating rollercoaster ride for fans. But the biggest difference with this recent peak compared to other high points so far is that the Guardians have finally proven that they can climb to the top of those mountains against difficult opponents.
Just last weekend, Cleveland had yet to win a game against a team that owned a .500 or better record. Now, the Guardians are celebrating taking three of four games against a Blue Jays club that entered the series sitting six games over .500 -- a series punctuated with a 4-3 come-from-behind victory on Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field.
The Guardians’ pitching hasn’t been as dominant as we’ve seen in recent years, but the team’s success so far this season has been largely dependent on its bats. What needs to go right to keep them in the win column? Let’s take a look at some key factors:
1. Franmil needs to be a contributor
Guardians manager Terry Francona said it best following Sunday’s victory: “Now that [Franmil Reyes] is [hitting], we can be a different team.”
At this point, we all know about Reyes’ struggles to start the season. His 2-for-32 skid with 21 strikeouts over the team’s last road trip (April 22-May 1) was frustrating, but the Cleveland slugger was able to stay patient enough to make it to the other side. In his past six games, Reyes is hitting .522 (12-for-23) with one double, one homer and five RBIs.
“He was going through it, but everyone knows how good of a hitter he is,” said Oscar Mercado, who drove in Reyes with his eighth-inning go-ahead single. “He’s a huge reason why we just won the game and why we’re on the roll we are.”
It’s still a small sample size, but the Guardians have taken advantage of every night Reyes’ bat has been hot, going 7-0 in contests where the slugger has logged more than one hit. And with him moved slightly down in the order, his pop can bring much more depth to the lineup.
“Everybody knew that it was [going to] happen at some point. It’s great to see,” added Owen Miller, who hit a game-tying home run in the eighth. “He’s seeing pitches well. It’s good to see him get back to what he can do. Adding him to the offense is unbelievable. When a bunch of guys are hitting like that, you can tell, we really frustrate the pitchers.”
2. Miller delivers as cleanup man
Part of why the Guardians were able to keep their heads above water during Reyes’ skid was Miller. No matter what position he’s played in the field, Miller has been able to be Cleveland’s most consistent hitter. When Reyes was struggling, Miller swapped in to his cleanup spot, providing a little more offense in a crucial spot and giving José Ramírez some better pitches to hit with a threatening bat behind him. Both of those goals were satisfied.
“Sometimes guys come here and maybe it doesn't click right away,” Francona said. “Then they go home over the winter and they come back and they appear stronger even though they really may not be. But their sense of belonging -- you can tell he looks like a different hitter. He really does.”
Miller noted that having his first year be a learning experience did help him settle in more this season and has improved his daily mindset. As a result, he’s hitting .352 with a 1.044 OPS through 22 games. The Guardians have been so used to relying on Ramírez that having someone else to fall back on when the All-Star third baseman or even a slugger like Reyes is in a rut has been essential for success.
3. The offense sticks to its unique approach
Baseball’s three true outcomes (walks, strikeouts and homers) dominate today’s game so much that it’s shocking to see the Guardians approach be polar opposite. Hitters like Ramírez, Steven Kwan and Myles Straw set the tone at the top of the order with their patience, their ability to foul off pitches and mindset of stringing together base hits to score runs. Entering Sunday, Cleveland had collectively seen the ninth-most number of pitches in the Majors and owned the highest batting average (.257) in the AL.
“That's good baseball, I love that,” Francona said. “Now, we'll take the three-run homers. But I love the fact that our guys are battling and hit the ball and use the whole field. I think that bodes well.”