CLEVELAND -- The Guardians are only 12 games into the season and the term “roller coaster” has already become cliché.
Whether you want to say the team’s success thus far has been a roller-coaster ride, a bumpy road or another metaphor, the bottom line is that inconsistency has plagued Cleveland in the early days of the season. And after a three-game losing streak in which the Guardians plated just four runs, they rebounded with a sweep of the White Sox at Progressive Field, sealed by Thursday afternoon's 6-3 victory.
Cleveland is back on the peak of its mountain, overcoming a few miscues with small ball and timely hits, while the pitching staff effectively fended off bats.
So, what have we learned from the constant climbs and falls? Here are three takeaways from the sweep of the White Sox:
1. Is Franmil heating up?
The Guardians can only hope the answer to this question is: “Yes.” Reyes’ bat will play a big role in making this roller-coaster ride much smoother.
“We, especially [with Reyes] hitting behind [José Ramírez], really need to get him going,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said.
Reyes gave the impression that he’s moving in the right direction with a single in the first and his first homer of the year in the third, snapping his streak of 47 plate appearances without a long ball (the longest to start a season in his career). While the numbers look better in the box score, it was actually Wednesday’s 1-for-4 performance that gave Reyes the indication he may be turning a corner.
In Game 1 of the doubleheader, Reyes recorded a single, a flyout, a groundout, a strikeout and drew a walk. It wasn’t too flashy, but it was the quality of the at-bats that suddenly skyrocketed. Reyes saw 27 pitches during the game, and even his strikeout started as a 1-2 count before he worked the count full and fouled off two pitches prior to sitting down.
It’s these little indicators that could be the calm before the storm.
“I want that every day,” Reyes said of Wednesday’s approach. "Take more than 20 pitches per game. It makes me a better hitter when I see more pitches.”
What confirmed his feelings about Wednesday was his home run to center field in Thursday's series finale.
“When I let the ball travel a little more, I feel better at the plate,” Reyes said. “That’s something my hitting coach always tells me; I couldn’t control it the first couple of games. … I’m not going to say things aren’t going to go back to how it was, but I’m trying. I’m working hard at it and I’m going to keep thinking the same way: [Hit] to the other way.”
2. Defense remains a problem
Scrappy teams need to play nearly perfect in order to sustain success, and the defense hasn’t yet found its groove, playing a large role in the drastic ups and downs through just the first two weeks of the season, as Francona highlighted on Sunday.
“We have to find a way to be better defensively,” Francona said Sunday. “We need to be good defensively.”
This short series was cleaner than it had been, but the Guardians didn’t walk away completely unscathed. With two outs and two on in the seventh inning, Trevor Stephan induced a grounder back to the mound. But instead of ending the frame right there, he sent an errant throw over first baseman Josh Naylor’s head, allowing a run to score -- and the damage wasn't limited to just that. Second baseman Ernie Clement rushed over to pick up the ball and fired a throw to the plate that soared over backstop Austin Hedges’ head, allowing a second run to score on the play.
This time, the Guardians were able to respond with two more runs to give them some breathing room, but that won’t always be the case, as Francona has constantly preached.
3. The Rule-5 weapon
Stephan was a reliever Cleveland took a chance on last year after selecting him in the Rule 5 Draft. Now, he may become one of the club's most-trusted high-leverage arms. The season is still young, yet Stephan has worked his way into critical scenarios, and he's yet to give up an earned run (despite his throwing error in the seventh). That situation didn’t rattle him, as he came back to record a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts in the eighth, giving his team another glimpse of what he could be this season.
"He’s certainly given us a huge boost," Francona said. “He looks resilient. He can pitch multiple innings. He’s been pitching in pretty important spots in the game and it doesn’t seem to shake him. I think he’s enjoying himself.”