ARLINGTON -- There’s been so much focus on how young the Guardians' roster is this season. So along with a typical champagne celebration, what’s more fitting than a pizza party for a young club that just clinched the American League Central?
Oscar Gonzalez and Cal Quantrill were bringing in boxes of pizza as other guys were getting doused in champagne. José Ramírez, Amed Rosario and Emmanuel Clase were dancing and taking selfies on the far side of the clubhouse. Triston McKenzie, Gonzalez and Quantrill all turned the protective plastic on the floor into a Slip 'N Slide like an elementary school field day.
It’s a celebration that embodies exactly how Cleveland clinched its first division title since 2018: Embracing its youth.
Cleveland is now the first team in AL/NL history to win a division or league title while seeing at least 16 rookies make their Major League debuts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
MLB.com’s Sarah Langs and Elias confirmed that the Guardians will be the eighth team to qualify for the playoffs as MLB’s youngest team (weighted by plate appearances and batters faced), assuming they remain the youngest when the season concludes, and the first to do so since the Mets in 1986.
“What’s wrong with being young?” starter Shane Bieber quipped.
The Guardians have proven the answer to that question is: Absolutely nothing. With youth came plenty of doubts, and now the club has become the ultimate underdog of the 2022 season.
After an Opening Day loss to Kansas City, FanGraphs projected Cleveland to win 77 games, with just a 6.4% chance of winning the American League Central. Fast forward to Sunday afternoon at Globe Life Field and the youngest roster in the Majors clinched the division title when the White Sox fell to the Tigers about 17 minutes before the final out of Cleveland’s 10-4 win over the Rangers.
Maybe Cleveland never doubted the success it could have this season, but it’s not hard to see why one would. The team’s only offseason acquisitions included bringing back right-hander Bryan Shaw, signing righty Enyel De Los Santos to a Minor League deal and inking backup catcher Luke Maile to a one-year contract.
Although the Guardians' front office insisted it had financial flexibility, no big deals were made. Mix that with a young group of kids who had little to no big league experience and it seemed like the club was destined for a rocky rebuilding season. Instead, Cleveland proved age is but a number, as rookies played like season veterans, as they learned that an old-school approach can compete in today’s game.
“Each team has its own identity and its own unique chemistry, and it takes a while for that to build over time,” Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. “You can see over the course of the year that identity continued to build, and then guys embraced it and took off with it.”
It started (and largely ended) with Steven Kwan. He stole the show and gave everyone a preview that Cleveland would be in the headlines this season when he saw 116 pitches to start his career before swinging and missing. He was a constant for the Guardians all season long, helping carry the team to its 11th title since the AL Central’s inception in 1994 with his first career grand slam on Sunday. And with Andrés Giménez settling in to be the player Cleveland knew he could be when the team acquired him and the sudden emergence of Gonzalez, the offense became much more threatening than anyone expected.
“I’m not sure I buy into where people say, ‘They’re playing with house money,’” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I think they deserve more credit than that. … It’s some pretty damn good baseball.”
The Guardians had their first big test in June. They were slated to face the Rockies, Dodgers and Twins during a nine-game road trip, and when Cleveland went 7-2, it gave a glimpse of what this team was capable of. Although it hit lows throughout the season, most recently earlier in September, losing eight of 10 games, the young group never crumbled. Instead, it was a wakeup call that sparked an incredible run to earn the division title.
The Guardians have won 18 of their past 21 matchups. They’ve also extended their win streak to seven games -- the longest they’ve had since June 2018. Because of this success, what was an improbable outcome of winning the division became expected over the past few weeks. And with the chance that it could occur on Sunday, Francona addressed his team before the game, reminding them that it’s OK to have some fun.
“I told them, ‘Hey, when this happens, you guys have earned the right to blow it out,’” Francona said. “The way they had to work, the way they played to get here, they can yell all night. I’ll sit here and let them yell all night. I don’t care what time we get home.”
The Guardians know that they still have a ways to go to reach their ultimate goal. But now that they know they’ll be hosting the best-of-three AL Wild Card Series at Progressive Field, beginning Oct. 7, it’s hard for them not to envision how special of a season this could be.
“We don’t look at ourselves as underdogs, but I know everybody else thought we were,” backstop Austin Hedges said. “And I don’t blame them. We’re young. Who would have thought? But we believed in ourselves and we’re going to continue to shock the world.”