Scuffling Guardians 'not backing down from challenges'

September 2nd, 2022

CLEVELAND -- Guardians manager Terry Francona woke up Thursday morning with more angst and excitement than he has had all season. September baseball just has a different feel to it, especially when your team is sitting in first place.

Francona thought for an extra minute or two, realizing that if he was feeling extra jacked up about the rubber match against the Orioles that night, his team full of rookies and inexperienced players had to be feeling even more late-season jitters. So he decided to call a team meeting.

“I just wanted them to remember, 'Hey, it's not supposed to be easy,'” Francona said. “We're playing against these teams that are built for October and we're kind of holding our own. I just wanted some of them to stay in the moment.”

He wanted to set the tone for the final few weeks of the regular season, although the ensuing 3-0 loss to the Orioles at Progressive Field certainly didn’t start building momentum. But regardless of one night’s result, Francona wanted to get some critical points across.

“It was quick,” Guardians starter Shane Bieber said of the meeting. “[Francona’s] always really good about that and conveying a good strong message. I know there might be a little bit of frustration just after tonight's game, but we'll go home, get some rest and come back at it tomorrow with the same mentality that we've started with since April.”

The last thing the Guardians can do right now is to look too far into the future. The team has been rolling in the second half of the season and is in a position at the beginning of September that few expected it to be in. However, as the games get more and more crucial, the club (especially the offense) has started to wane.

Over the last seven games, the Guardians have won twice. On Wednesday and Thursday, Cleveland was shut out. And in the series finale against Baltimore, Bieber struggled early before recovering to strike out 11 over seven innings, though it didn’t matter, considering he received no run support and just two hits from the offense.

“There might be a little sense of frustration the last couple of days, but we don't have the luxury of [playing tight],” Bieber said. “Why change now? I'm excited to see how we bounce back tomorrow. It should be a non-issue, a non-factor.”

The second half of the season started on the strongest note Cleveland could’ve asked for. The club won or split the first 10 series coming out of the All-Star break. Now, suddenly, the Guardians are back to clinging to first place in the AL Central with just a one-game lead over the Twins.

“I look at the standings,” Francona said. “Our job revolves around it. But I think you've got to play your games first. I'm not a mathematician, but when you win, things seem to go better. When we lose, I want everybody to lose.”

This shaky stretch began in Seattle last week, and now Cleveland will host the Mariners for three more games at Progressive Field beginning Friday, before the following week starts a stretch of eight games in 11 days against the divisional-rival Twins. As each day passes, the intensity of these matchups will only grow, but in order to combat that, the Guardians will have to get back to their scrappy put-the-ball-in-play approach that’s led them to such unexpected success so far this season.

“Just rely on who we are and what we believe in and try to make teams play at our pace,'' Francona said. “Then, win or lose, learn and move on to the next day. Do that good enough and you keep playing.”

According to FanGraphs, the Guardians have a 55.8% chance of making the postseason. Because of the records the current AL Wild Card-contending teams boast, it’s unlikely that Cleveland could use a Wild Card spot as a backup plan if it would fall out of first place. So if the Guardians are going to get to the postseason, they’re going to need to get back in the win column. Maybe this group hasn’t done it before, but Francona is confident that won’t hold them back.

“I told them, ‘I don't know how many guys in this room have played through a Major League pennant race,’” Francona said. “‘That doesn't mean we can't win. It just means you haven't done it before.’ And they have really been good about not backing down from challenges.”