CLEVELAND -- We’re a few weeks into the season, and everyone is still in awe of rookie Steven Kwan.
The Guardians fought their way back from a three-run deficit in the eighth, which eventually forced extra innings. With two on and no outs in the bottom of the 10th, Cleveland rookie sensation Kwan stepped to the plate. And like he has all season, he delivered, lifting the Guardians a 6-5 extra-innings victory with a walk-off single in the nightcap of Wednesday’s doubleheader against the Padres at Progressive Field.
“It's been a while, probably like High-A or something,” Kwan said, when asked when his last walk-off hit was. “A little bleeder over the third baseman. This was much cooler.”
“I'm just really impressed with his approach,” Guardians Game 2 starter Cal Quantrill said. “I think that the way he approaches both the game and just each at-bat is definitely big league material.”
But how exactly did Kwan get to this moment?
The Guardians were on the heels of a 5-4 loss in the matinee of Wednesday’s twin bill. And after chipping away at a 3-0 deficit early in Game 2, they fell back into a three-run hole by the eighth before Josh Naylor knotted the score on a single to center in the bottom half of the frame against his former team. That eventually led to the walk-off moment for Kwan in the 10th.
With runners on first and second and nobody out, Kwan walked up to the plate. Since the first day he arrived at Spring Training, the No.1 thing the rookie outfielder has displayed is his incredible patience at the plate. Anyone paying close attention could tell that he was a little more overwhelmed in this setting than he has been since his big league debut, as he asked third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh to run through the signs he was given a second time to make sure he understood them.
Nonetheless, he settled himself back down to step into the box. The next hurdle that needed to be overcome before Kwan was put in this position was the decision to have him bunt or swing. The automatic-runner rule for extra innings causes teams to have to strategize a little differently. Franmil Reyes led off the frame, and there was no question that he would be swinging. But after he was hit by a pitch, and two runners were on base with no outs, it seemed likely the team would try to move the runners up on a bunt to get someone on third base for a possible sacrifice fly. But that wasn’t the path the Guardians chose.
“He runs good enough [to] where they shouldn't be able to double him up,” Guardians manager Terry Francona explained. “They're playing in for a bunt, so the idea is that maybe he can slap one by somebody.”
Kwan knew what his assignment was. The first pitch from right-hander Dinelson Lamet was a slider over the outer third of the plate that Kwan watched for a strike. The second pitch was a slider high above the zone. The third pitch? You guessed it, a slider yet again. Kwan had three opportunities to get a look at the offering, so when it was thrown again on Pitch 4, he was ready for it.
“He spun me four sliders in a row, so after that third one, I kind of had an idea of how it was working,” Kwan said. “Saw one up, took a chance at it. It's still a great pitch, obviously, got me to hit it on the ground. But yeah, it was a good pitch to swing at.”
Kwan served a 93.7 mph single through the right side of the infield that gave Owen Miller, who was on second, just enough time to race home and score the winning run. Kwan leaped into the air at first base in celebration before his team jumped on him and squirted him with water bottles.
“Instant blackout right when I got to first,” Kwan said. “Right when I got to first, water hitting me in the face, I don't even remember what happened.”
Kwan has checked a lot of big league firsts off his to-do list in 18 games. In this short time, he’s knocked in nine runs -- five of which have come with two outs, three have been to put his team in the lead, and four have been in close and late game situations. And this is only the beginning of his Major League career.
“He's incredible, man,” Naylor said. “Incredible hitter, incredible ballplayer all around, and he's just going to get better from here on out. I mean, he's obviously young in the game, and he's going to go through some experiences that are just going to make him better, so I'm excited for his future.”