Oscar-worthy ending in 15th puts Guardians in ALDS

October 9th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- It was the game that seemed like it never was going to end. Guardians Game 1 starter Shane Bieber decided to go grab a cup of chicken broth to keep him warm in the dugout as Cleveland went to the bottom of the 15th inning.

Oscar Gonzalez walked to the plate as Bieber was settling in for an even longer marathon than the team already had been through. Patchy the Pirate’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker, yelling “Are you ready, kids?” as the entire Cleveland crowd rose to its collective feet. Chants of “SpongeBob SquarePants” filled Progressive Field, as Gonzalez looked for an offspeed pitch to square up.

It took two pitches before Gonzalez smacked a cutter from former Cleveland ace Corey Kluber deep into the left-center-field seats to not only give the Guardians a 1-0, 15-inning victory over the Rays in Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series on Saturday afternoon, but also send them to the AL Division Series, which begins Tuesday against the Yankees in New York. In the dugout, chaos ensued.

“Yeah, right away I knew it was a good connection,” Gonzalez said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero. “And also the angle that the ball was going, I knew it was going to be a home run.”

“I threw [the cup] up and boiled broth poured right on top of my hat,” Bieber said. “I couldn't be happier about it. What a special time, and I'm so happy for him.”

Catcher Austin Hedges, who was out of the game after getting replaced by a pinch-hitter in the 11th, was down in the bathroom underneath the Guardians’ dugout. He, like Bieber, assumed he had time to kill, as both offenses showed little to no sign of heating up, becoming the first playoff game to complete 13 innings without plating a single run.

But Gonzalez has a reputation for his power and there are only a handful of Guardians who can be expected to make that big of an impact with one swing of the bat. His 31 homers in 121 games between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021 certainly raised some eyebrows. He didn’t flex his muscles too much after making his Major League debut in May, but over the last few weeks of the regular season, he started to give glimpses of that untapped potential.

Gonzalez knew he needed to sit on an offspeed pitch. He got a cutter to start the at-bat and watched it just miss the lower-outside corner of the strike zone. He didn’t deviate from his plan.

“During the at-bat, I was looking for a breaking pitch,” Gonzalez said. “I know myself and I know I can't react to the fastball, so I was just trying to get myself in a better position for the breaking pitch.”

Sitting offspeed, Gonzalez saw another cutter coming right over the heart of the plate, and he gave Cleveland its first walk-off homer to clinch a postseason series in club history (13th in MLB history).

“Uh, I might not have even finished buckling up my pants at the time and I heard the loudest noise of my life and that was his barrel,” Hedges said, chuckling, “and then the fans started yelling and I saw the boys running out there, so I didn’t even see it. … Nothing made me happier than running out onto the field with the guys.”

“Seeing them waiting for me at the plate, especially a lot of guys that I've seen my whole life and I've been playing alongside them, it’s just very special,” Gonzalez said.

It’s become a broken record to talk about the unprecedented success so many rookies have had for Cleveland this season, but along with Steven Kwan, Gonzalez may be the most impressive story. Gonzalez floated around a .300 average all season, and he finished with a 125 OPS+ with 11 homers, 27 doubles and 43 RBIs in 91 games. And just two games into his postseason career, he showed he isn’t afraid of the spotlight.

“If you look up his numbers in the Minor Leagues, he’s doing what he’s done his entire career,” Hedges said. “The game doesn’t change for him. … Oscar is the perfect example of a guy who just goes out and he is Oscar every game. When he does stuff like that, no one’s surprised.”

Gonzalez pulled up for his typical jump-shot celebration as he rounded second. His teammates were ready to douse him with water at the plate before they’d empty bottles of champagne on his head in the clubhouse. As he rounded third, the video screens showed a fan in the stands wearing a SpongeBob costume, as the 34,971 fans celebrated that at least one more postseason game will happen at Progressive Field next Saturday with Game 3 of the ALDS.

That means there will be at least one more instance of chanting for SpongeBob SquarePants.

“I guess the SpongeBob walkup song is here to stay for a little bit,” Bieber said, with a smile.

So are the Guardians.