Catch of the year? Kwan lays out to deny Rox

June 16th, 2022

DENVER -- When José Iglesias hit a drive headed for the left-field wall with two outs in the seventh inning at Coors Field on Wednesday night, it looked as though the Guardians’ precarious one-run lead over Colorado was all but gone.

After all, Cleveland’s left fielder, Steven Kwan, would have to cover 65 feet in four seconds on a dead sprint toward the fence in order to have a chance to make a play. With the Guardians clinging to a 6-5 lead and runners at the corners, the Rockies would have almost certainly taken a late lead had the ball hit the ground.

“I thought he had zero chance of catching it,” manager Terry Francona said. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, he’s gonna leave his feet and that guy on first is gonna score.”

But Kwan did catch it for what might be the defensive play of the year, preserving that slim advantage in a 7-5 victory, Cleveland’s 12th win in its last 15 games. Kwan got a great jump on the ball, registering a Statcast Sprint Speed of 28.6 feet per second en route to a full-extension dive that saved the game.

“From my perspective [at shortstop],” said Amed Rosario, “I didn’t think he was gonna catch it.”

On a night that José Ramírez delivered another four hits and Rosario launched a 447-foot home run -- his first of the season -- as part of a three-hit performance in which he fell a double shy of the cycle, it would have been heartbreaking for the Guardians had Iglesias’ drive met the warning track instead of Kwan’s glove.

As he was racing toward the ball, Kwan knew what was at stake. And because of the circumstances, he also knew what he had to do.

“There were two outs,” he said. “You just have to make a play. … If it’s two outs, even if you don’t have a great chance at it, just go ahead and try something, because if it falls, it’s gonna fall and [they’re going to take the lead anyway].”

The play was, in a way, emblematic of the Guardians in 2022: A team that needs to do the little things right to win, one that must outhustle and outsmart opponents with better rosters on paper, one led by a 5-foot-9 MVP candidate -- Ramírez -- who has the highest WAR (according to FanGraphs) of any position player in the American League (3.8) after his four-hit performance.

It was another 5-foot-9 Guardian, however, who made the most valuable play on this night. He needed to do everything right and he needed every inch of a glove he says his teammates make fun of him for.

“The palm gets people feeling some kind of way,” Kwan said with a smile. “It’s just formed a little funky. But it’s how I like it. If you catch it in the web, it’s all good.”

It was all good when Kwan hit the warning track, having made the incredible grab. But defensively, it wasn’t all good for Cleveland. In the third, Oscar Mercado -- for whom Kwan pinch-hit and replaced defensively in the fifth -- dropped a routine fly ball in shallow left field that led to a Rockies run. Prior to that, starter Konnor Pilkington fielded a swinging bunt and threw wide of first, leading to two runs in the second.

The Guardians shored up their porous defense beginning in the fourth, however, when Myles Straw charged into shallow center to make a sliding catch on a Ryan McMahon flare. Two batters later, Rosario made a sparkling play on a scorched ground ball that deflected off third baseman Ernie Clement’s glove; Rosario barehanded it in shallow left field and fired to first to get Elias Díaz by half a step.

“We’ve gotta play clean baseball,” Francona said. “So [the early defensive miscues weren’t] the way we need to play to win. … Our guys keep fighting. I’d rather them fight after making a couple of mistakes than give up.”

The Guardians fought for another win Wednesday. “Fighting” for everything they get has become a theme for this group, and it’s a word you’ll hear often in Cleveland’s clubhouse.

“We’re fighting hard in that game,” Kwan said. “Relievers doing their job, [offense] chipping away, so it was a really cool catch to make for sure.”

And like his Guardians, Kwan needed to give everything he had to make it happen.

“I needed every inch of me,” he said. “I needed every inch of me and the glove on that.”