'We're having a blast': Guardians rally for win, pad lead

September 17th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- Nearly half the Guardians’ roster was huddled around a television in the home clubhouse to watch the ending of the White Sox-Tigers game on Friday night.

This was the position the Guardians knew they could be in at this point in the season, despite the doubts that piled in from the outside. Cleveland had wrapped up a 4-3 comeback victory over the Twins at Progressive Field just minutes prior and it was rooting hard to not only gain a game over one AL Central competitor, but two.

Victor Reyes stepped to the plate for the Tigers against Liam Hendriks in the bottom of the 10th with one out and runners on second and third. With each pitch, the tension in the Guardians’ clubhouse grew. Back-to-back swinging strikes had Cleveland players throwing their hands on their heads. But on the next pitch, Reyes lifted a high fly ball to the outfield that was plenty deep to score a run and send the Guardians into a celebration, as they watched their lead in the division extend to four games over the White Sox.

“We're having a blast,” Guardians infielder Owen Miller said of his team’s victory. “That was a lot of fun tonight.”

The Guardians’ win not only moved them another game ahead of the third-place Twins (now five games up) and second-place White Sox, but it was also a critical victory for Cleveland, as the club officially has taken the season series from Minnesota. In the case of a tie between the Guardians and Twins for first place at the end of the season, the AL Central title would go to Cleveland.

Progressive Field hosted more than 20,000 fans on Friday night. Maybe it wasn’t a sellout, but the atmosphere was different than any other home game for the Guardians this season. Suddenly, it felt like playoff baseball, and the taste of October is fueling Cleveland’s fire.

“That's as cool as it gets,” said Guardians infielder Ernie Clement, who scored the winning run on a wild pitch in the 8th inning. “We're never out of a game. Everybody on the bench knows that. When you have a crowd like that, it just helps even more.”

“I’m nervous as hell. And I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said, with a grin, of watching the comeback. “It was exciting. Guys work all winter and all spring and play all year and you have the right to play in a game that’s this exciting -- that’s great. Embrace it.”

The Guardians followed the same script they have all year: Slow and scrappy wins the race. The offense came out flat-footed and didn’t pick up a hit until the fourth inning. But as the Guardians have done all year, the club made a comeback in the seventh, as Amed Rosario, who’s shined for the team all season, smacked a game-tying two-run single.

It wasn’t until the next frame that Cleveland took a one-run lead. Josh Naylor led off the frame with a single and after Oscar Gonzalez followed suit, Naylor was replaced by Clement to get more speed on second base. As Clement jogged out to the bag, Naylor stopped him and told him, “Hey, be ready for a dirt ball.”

Apparently, Naylor had his crystal ball, as the third pitch after Clement entered the game escaped catcher Gary Sánchez and went to the backstop. Sánchez couldn’t locate the ball, giving Clement plenty of time to channel his inner Kenny Lofton and score the winning run from second base.

“This is kind of the baseball that they play,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “They apply pressure and they continue to compete out there, and I think they probably have a lot of comeback wins.”

The Guardians understand the importance of every victory. The schedule doesn’t get easier after this five-game set against the Twins, considering they head to Chicago on Tuesday for three games against the White Sox. Their goal is to gain as much of a lead as they can before that series opener.

“You can tell just how much more it means to the team, just knowing the spot that we’re in leading into these [games],” Guardians starter Triston McKenzie said. “I mean, it’s a huge weekend for us leading into next week, especially in this last stretch of the season. I think just the energy and the vibes in the clubhouse, these are must-win games for us and we’re gonna go out there and play like it.”