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Terry Francona Leads Guardians Against Yankees in ALDS

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It has been probably the most remarkable decade of excellence in recent baseball history. Within the 10 seasons that Terry Francona has managed in Cleveland — in Cleveland, remember — his teams have at all times been good.

“Since Tito’s been here,” said Chris Antonetti, the president of baseball operations for the Guardians, using Francona’s nickname, “we’ve only played 19 games through which we weren’t secured a playoff spot or in contention for one, and most of those actually were last 12 months. So before last 12 months we were in the one digits, literally, the entire time he was here, where we weren’t playing meaningful games.”

Teams don’t raise banners for that, and Cleveland has gone with no World Series title since 1948, longer than every other team that was playing then. But nine out of 10 seasons with a winning record — the exception: an 80-82 stumble in 2021 — is astounding for a low-payroll team.

The Yankees’ opening day payroll, in response to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, was about $246 million. The Guardians’ was about $68 million — or the combined salaries of Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton in 2023.

So, yes, it’s not a good fight. Cole gave the Yankees what they paid for in Game 1, spinning tight sliders and curves below the strike zone, mixing more changeups late in the sport, and leaving only eight outs for the Yankees’ patchwork bullpen.

“He can have overwhelming stuff,” Francona said. “He starts to hurry you up after which he spins it. It may possibly get tough.”

The Guardians — baseball’s youngest team — play with a throwback style that’s fun to look at when it really works. They steal bases. They put the ball in play. They don’t hit lots of homers yet still rating more runs than the common team.

“Getting the following guy up, walks, profiting from errors, running counts up, taking first to 3rd, I feel that’s once we’re at our greatest,” said left fielder Steven Kwan, Cleveland’s rookie leadoff hitter. “It’s getting contributions from everybody, it’s not only live and die by the long ball. When we are able to get that going, I feel we’re a superb team.”

They’re, however the Guardians also play within the American League Central, where just one non-Cleveland pitcher (Dylan Stop of the Chicago White Sox) worked the required 162 innings to qualify for the earned run average title. Playoff pitching has scrambled their strategy.

Cleveland swept Tampa Bay in a two-game wild-card series by scoring three total runs to the Rays’ one. The runs scored on a two-run homer by José Ramírez in Game 1 and a series-clinching blast by Oscar Gonzalez within the fifteenth inning of Game 2. On Tuesday, Kwan homered off Cole for the Guardians’ only run.

The Guardians ranked twenty ninth within the majors in homers, ahead of only the Detroit Tigers. Yet they’ve been unable to attain another way to date within the postseason. That they had the fewest strikeouts of any offense this season, yet have fanned 35 times in three games against the Rays and the Yankees.

Pitching saved the Guardians within the last round, and it stays their best hope. Shane Bieber, who starts Game 2 on Thursday, is about nearly as good as there’s. Bieber has a 2.91 E.R.A. during the last 4 seasons, second only to Max Scherzer amongst pitchers with at the least 90 starts in that point. The Yankees haven’t faced him since April 2021.

“Shane’s a special one,” catcher Austin Hedges said. “He just has special stuff. He gets swings on pitches that you simply don’t really see from many guys. He’s got a big pitch repertoire and he can use any of them at any time.”

Bieber, the 2020 A.L. Cy Young Award winner, will keep the Yankees guessing — few starters throw more off-speed pitches — and provides Cleveland its best likelihood to make this series competitive. The Guardians can be encouraged to move home with a split, because Triston McKenzie, one among the majors’ hottest pitchers down the stretch, starts Game 3. He held the Yankees to at least one hit in seven shutout innings in July.

Bieber and McKenzie were drafted and developed by Cleveland, like Ramírez, the team’s do-it-all third baseman. Antonetti and his staff have shrewdly filled in around them, never giving in to the protracted rebuilding projects of other teams in Cleveland’s payroll district.

In three separate trades from December 2019 through January 2021, the Guardians collected five high-impact players: second baseman Andrés Giménez, shortstop Amed Rosario, first baseman Josh Naylor, starter Cal Quantrill and closer Emmanuel Clase.

They traded the starters Corey Kluber (to Texas) and Mike Clevinger (to San Diego) and shortstop Francisco Lindor (to the Mets) in those trades and saved lots of money in the method, helping them sign Ramírez to a club-record seven-year, $141 million contract extension this April.

“We’ve got an understanding of what our challenges are, and what we seek to do is use a technique to overcome them and construct winning teams,” Antonetti said. “The more consistently we are able to try this, the more possibilities we give ourselves to get to the postseason, the higher possibilities we’ve to win the World Series, which is all of our goals.”

That is the sixth postseason for Francona, 63, in his decade with Cleveland. He has been battered by physical problems — three surgeries for blood clotting in 2020, and hip and foot surgeries in 2021 — but has kept returning.

“I probably wouldn’t be working if it wasn’t for the those who I work for — I respect them and luxuriate in them and I do know what they do,” he said. “They do a extremely good job of explaining to me, like coming into this 12 months: ‘Hey, that is form of where we’re at.’ It gives me a likelihood to adapt after which discuss with the coaches so we stay on line and keep our direction, nonetheless you wish to say it. They’re one of the best. They’re one of the best people you may ever work for.”

The Guardians have a narrow pathway to squeeze past the Yankees and into the A.L. Championship Series, but when anyone can guide them there, it’s Francona. His contract expires after the postseason, however the job is his for so long as he wants it — and there isn’t a place he would relatively be.

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