Kwan evokes Doby as Guardians overwhelm Mariners

April 1st, 2023

SEATTLE -- It may be a new year, but the Guardians are still the Guardians … even if it took an extra 24 hours to show that.

On Opening Night, Cleveland struggled to put enough balls in play and couldn’t fall into its usual small-ball ways. But that changed on Friday in a 9-4 victory over the Mariners at T-Mobile Park, as bunts, sacrifice flies and stellar baserunning stole the show.

And was at the center of it, becoming just the second hitter in Cleveland history to knock in at least five runs in one of the first two games of a season (Larry Doby on April 16, 1953).

It’s pointless to discuss how imperative it is for this team to have José Ramírez be, well, José Ramírez in order to find success. It’s glaringly obvious at this point. But it’s almost just as critical for Kwan to set the tone at the top of the lineup, like he did so effortlessly in his rookie season.

It starts with the number of pitches he sees in his plate appearances. Kwan uncharacteristically went 0-for-4 on Thursday and struck out in his first at-bat on Friday. But even with a strikeout, he’s benefitting his team. Kwan’s K ended after nine pitches to start the game. Later, he served a double into left field on the eighth pitch he saw, and he singled on the eighth pitch of another at-bat.

“That’s why he’s hitting first,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said.

It seems minor, but Kwan’s at-bats alone were a big reason why Mariners starter Robbie Ray was forced out of the game after just 3 1/3 frames, and it helps Kwan’s teammates see plenty of pitches before they even step in the batter’s box.

“I remember last year at the beginning, people were saying, ‘You’re why José is doing really well right now. He gets to see the pitches before he even gets up there, and that’s really valuable,’” Kwan said. “I take that to heart. There’s only so much I can do in the beginning of an at-bat, but if I can set the tone for everybody else, I think that’s really important.”

We learned last year that Kwan is worth more than just driving up a pitch count. He got back to looking like himself in the batter’s box when he simply made contact, serving a sacrifice fly into right-center field that easily plated Mike Zunino. In the fourth, Kwan’s two-run double was softly served just over the third baseman’s head with an exit velocity of 57.9 mph, landing on the chalk down the left-field line -- a standard Kwan extra-base hit.

“This team, they put the ball in play,” Ray said. “They make you make the play and get outs that way. You saw it. I felt like I made a good pitch to Kwan and he fights it off and sneaks it in the third-base line.”

Kwan picked up two more RBIs on an opposite-field single in the top of the fifth.

“It’s nice to see him do that because kind of uncharacteristically he kind of pulled off of a few last night and at the start of the night,” Francona said. “You don’t see him do that very much, so it’s nice to see him stay the other way.”

Kwan stole all the headlines at this time last year. He turned every head in each building he walked into with his unbelievable hand-eye coordination. He began his career with a streak of 116 pitches before finally swinging and missing for the first time. But still, he was an experienced Minor Leaguer who was getting his first taste of big league play.

Aside from a brief stretch last May, Kwan never seemed to struggle with the adjustment to the Majors. By the end of his rookie season, he seemed like a seasoned veteran in the clubhouse (partly because 16 other players made their debuts after him).

With more experience added to his résumé, it’s easy to assume that Kwan will continue to grow into an even better version of the player he established himself to be in 2022 -- something the Guardians will certainly need to see more success in ‘23.

“I remember in [Kansas City on Opening Day last year], my heart was beating out of my chest,” Kwan recalled. “I couldn’t even see the pitcher. … It really helps being familiar in calming the heart rate down. It’s miles different.”