CLEVELAND — After weeks of hard-fought matchups leading to clinching the American League Central and securing a spot in the playoffs, the Cleveland Guardians are finally starting to soak in all of their accomplishments.
Pitcher Triston McKenzie has been waiting for the opportunity to feel comfortable in their reveling—but winning the division was something that he always felt was a possibility.
"I don't think there's a doubt in anybody's mind that we could win the division. It was more of where would we be at halfway through the season....and how good of a spot can we put ourselves in to do that?" McKenzie said. "I think we've been playing really good baseball and I think we've been playing baseball together as a team. And I think from start to finish, we've been pulling for each other."
The mentality that the Guardians have rallied around has been constant all season long. Before each guy on the roster had found their hot streak, before there was a magic number to shoot for, before the AL Central Champs t-shirts had been designed—the Guardians have felt comfortable playing their brand of baseball.
It was at the halfway point that things really came into focus, however.
"I'd say right after the All-Star break was for me the big turning point or the point where it became realistic. I think we played well through the first half of the season, but coming into the second half we were only a couple games out of first place," McKenzie said. "We had been playing good baseball and by our standards we didn't naturally feel like we were playing our best baseball. So from there it was kind of just put our heads down and just keep grinding."
And grind they did. On Sept. 13, the Guardians magic number to clinch the AL Central was 20. Ten days later, the Guardians, with the aide of a slew of White Sox losses, knocked that number down to three. On Saturday, the Guardians beat the Rangers to take the magic number down to two and a White Sox loss moments later took it down to one.
That's when the fun really started. The Guardians, in their last game of the series against the Rangers, got off to a hot start and took an early lead over Texas. While Cleveland played, the White Sox also had their final game of the series against the Tigers.
Infielder Tyler Freeman recalled that moment.
"I'm out on the field in Texas and I'm at second base. And I glanced at the scoreboard of the White Sox and Tigers game, and I saw that the [Tigers] had gone up and they were up pretty, pretty good," Freeman said. "And I'm like, 'We did it boys.' Like, I knew. I knew at that moment, it's like we did it. And then when [Steven] Kwan hit that grand slam, kind of put the icing on the cake."
Kwan's grand slam sent the Guardians up 10-2 over the Rangers in the top of the eighth—all but sealing the win. The White Sox loss came first, so they technically were the clinch for the Guardians, but the young and hungry Cleveland team wanted it to be self-earned as well.
"We had some fans in Texas yelling at us, letting us know that the White Sox had lost and that we had clinched. And honestly, I don't think anybody in the dugout was fazed because we wanted to win and we wanted to clinch kind of on our own terms," McKenzie explained. "So we were going out there and as soon as the game was finished, you could see this—maybe not ease—but just this sense of 'alright boys, we kind of did it for ourselves.' And it was all elation from there."
The Guardians, after seeing their goals quickly becoming a reality over a few short weeks as they caught fire and won 18 of their last 21 games, took Sunday night to soak it all it.
From champagne popping to beer chugs, photos and dancing to slip-and-sliding, the Guardians locker room celebration was a culmination of hard work paid off. The excitement sparked by a rallying speech from skipper Terry Francona.
"It was pretty calm and collected until Tito came and said something to us. But as soon as he kind of gave us the go-ahead and let us kind of decompress a little bit after the game, I think everybody was just happy to be there," McKenzie said after initially "pleading the fifth" about the postgame shenanigans. "There was lots of champagne. There was lots of champagne in the eyes, regardless of the goggles. And I think the boys were just happy to be celebrating. I think it was a lot of hard work to get to that point. And I think that day on Sunday was kind of a day for us to almost let our foot off the gas and really soak in the moment."
But while the division champs celebration was a memory the young squad will never forget—now that the hangover fog has cleared, of course—the focus is shifting right back to where it has always been. Having young guys filling up the roster, most of who have never been in this position could pose a challenge to get re-engaged—but McKenzie is confident in the guys and the staff to help them navigate these new waters.
"I'd say the hardest part about being young is a lot of us haven't necessarily been here. So to a degree, we don't know how to act. We're kind of out there just having fun, being ourselves, really living in the moment. But I think we have a good support staff around us. I think Tito's the head of the ship, and I think he does a good job of letting us know where we can kind of get a little bit outside of our bounds and where we need to rein it in a little bit. And I think it just keeps everybody levelheaded and it keeps us focused on what we're really out there to do," McKenzie said.
The Guardians have their spot in the playoffs, but the work continues. It's a message preached by Francona, McKenzie and others on the team.
"Every game now going forward is still meaningful. We're going to get ready and play our game. And, like I said, get ready for the playoffs and you've got to start one day at a time," Freeman said. "We're playing baseball. I'm going to play baseball the Guardian way.—whoever we're playing. So we're ready. We're just ready."
McKenzie agreed and said that no matter who is on the schedule against them, the brand of baseball that they've embraced all season paired with the newfound energy provided by their division title earn gives them the confidence to play against anyone.
"We're going to play Cleveland baseball. And regardless of if it's Seattle, if it's Tampa Bay, if it's the Blue Jays, so on and so forth, I think we're going to go out there. We're going to try and win games," McKenzie said.
And Francona, who is steering the ship, believes that his young team will be able to stay focused and grounded as the playoffs approach because that's just who they are.
"Just to remind them of who we are because there's going to be some more media than we've had in the past, maybe national media—and good, they deserve that," Francona said. "Just don’t want them to forget who we are and how we do things, that’s why we’re here. But if they’ve made it through 153 games, I think they’re going to be okay.”
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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